Thursday, June 23, 2011

How I joined The Comedy Company

In my teens and twenties, I was lucky enough to have a few children's books published. But the money really was extraordinarily bad unless you built up a huge backlist or wrote The Lord of the Rings, and it didn’t look like I was going to do either. I thought the way to make money would be to write comedy scripts for TV and radio. There was only one place in Melbourne at the time where you could study that, and that was The Victorian College of Arts. They accepted only a small number of students per year – thirty or so – and they wanted to make sure you’d be able to support yourself financially for those three years, so they asked you to write down how exactly you’d do this. Arrogantly I wrote down ‘royalties’ – which was a lie because there’s no way I could have supported myself on those alone, but that got me in.

Trying far too hard to be funny in a show I wrote at The Victorian College of Arts.

I graduated after three years, and wrote more kids' books that still didn’t make any money. But I now had this diploma that said I could write TV and radio scripts. So I also started sending comedy scripts away to TV and radio and in the end they started buying them. In the eighties, ABC Radio had a Comedy Unit that put together sketch programs to which I would contribute. I remember one was called Don't Get Off Your Bike. They paid quite well and the shows were highly produced. But ABC Radio eventually got rid of its Comedy Unit, which I thought was a pity. Then I got a weird break. One of the ABC producers thought I had a nice voice and she gave me a weekly radio show on ABC Radio National. It was called Rave. I’d come on after The Country Hour and before Baroque and Beyond. It was the first show on Radio National to feature comedy and rock music. It was also the last. But it gave me the opportunity to interview some of my comedy heroes, including Douglas Adams, Rowan Atkinson, Graham Chapman and Alexei Sayle. Since it went out live I also learned a golden rule of broadcasting, which is not to let a seriously drunk person on live radio. My interview with Ignatius Jones came to a sudden end when he fell off his chair.

After a Rave broadcast, with producer Debbie Richards. This is the only time Debbie Richards ever laughed at something I said. I wish I could remember what it was.

My real links with the Melbourne comedy scene happened as a result of Theatresports – the competitive improvisational drama game that became huge in the eighties and is still played in schools today. A lot of Theatresports is about panic. Back at the height of its popularity, you would be about to face an audience of two thousand people on some nights, and have no idea of what you were about to say or do. I was fortunate to be in a team that featured comedians Glenn Robbins and Maryanne Fahey, who weren't as fazed by it as I was. Though Glenn did vomit before one of the games.

During the first Melbourne Comedy Festival, a huge Theatresports event was staged at The Dallas Brooks Hall. Two thousand spectators watched my team, The Gutless Wonders, perform very badly. But I had one minor triumph. At a convenient moment, I discovered that I have a party trick that I'd never known about. I was very lanky back then, with loose ligaments. In one of the rounds we had to ad lib a short play about a murder in a computer games arcade. It wasn't going well. We were approaching the end of the game and nobody had been murdered. Then I got it into my head that the murder could be committed by one of the critters in an old fashioned Space Invaders game. So I tried to behave like one and it got this really big laugh and I had no idea why. The next night I saw myself on Channel Ten news, being a Space Invader. (Slow news day.) God, I looked freaky. The late great Peter Cook, who was the guest judge, decided that this performance was worthy of Moment of the Match, and he gave me the trophy. He did look puzzled when I got up on stage to collect it, and I suspect he might have got me confused with another player.

Trying to get a publicity shot without Mark Mitchell.

Out of Theatresports came my gig as head writer on the pilot of a TV sketch show called The Comedy Company for Channel Ten. It got picked up for a series of six, though it went on to run for two highly successful years and one unsuccessful one, and relaunched sketch comedy on commercial TV.

The first Comedy Company sketch I wrote was about a holiday resort where intellectuals went for meaningful relaxation. It was called Club Head (as opposed to Club Med) and it was a complete turkey. No one laughed. One of Glenn Robbins’ first sketches was Mum on the Run. It was a home delivery organisation that sent out these mums with plates of home-cooked meals – grey corned beef, bullet peas and Deb mashed potato – with rotund comedian Mark Mitchell dressed up like a mum emerging from a van. And Glenn’s stuff worked. People did laugh. As a seasoned stand-up comedian, Glenn knew that the real crowd-pleasing material was more to do with everyday stuff. He’d also trained as a teacher, so he had a fair idea about how kids thought, and it turned out that kids were a huge proportion of our audience.

Writers of The Comedy Company, 1989. That's Mick Molloy, back left.

By far the most successful part of the show was the set of characters that the cast invented and played. Schoolgirl Kylie Mole, played by Maryanne Fahey, became a national sensation, just as big as the other Kylie who was then the star of Neighbours. Glenn Robbins brought his lovable Uncle Arthur character to the second series, and rapidly charmed the audiences. Mark Mitchell will always be remembered as Con The Fruiterer - more about him later. Kim Gyngell, one of Australia's very best actors, shone every week as the clueless Colin Carpenter, whom everyone thought was based on a friend of theirs. When the show started, producer Ian McFadyen invited me to be in the cast of performers. I didn't want to do it. Being an award-winning Space Invader was enough for me. So I stuck to being head writer, with very occasional appearances in the show as a nun or a cockroach or something glamorous like that.

Your head writer on Sydney Harbour with Kim Gyngell and co-writer Peter Herbert.

The Comedy Company was rarely satirical or sophisticated. We didn't have high production values. We were nothing like Not the Nine O'Clock News, which was the ground-breaking English satire series that we all admired. But Ian McFadyen had a very clear view of the show. He wanted the hundreds of thousands of Neighbours viewers to watch his show as well. With the exception of Ian, we weren't a very academic bunch of writers. (I've since worked on sketch comedy shows where at least half the writers are lawyers.) I had nothing but a Diploma of Arts. Tim Smith worked for the Gas and Fuel Corporation. Russell Gilbert worked at an abattoir. When former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke appeared on one of the shows, I was embarrassed that two of our writers offered him a beer. It was widely known that Hawke didn't drink alcohol. But obviously not that widely known.

The Comedy Company has a special guest star.

Despite our dagginess, or because of it, we got well known very quickly. There was a lot of media attention. A Cleo journalist even asked me if I wanted to be in the running for their Bachelor of The Year award. I declined, because I wasn't a bachelor at the time. It wasn't due to any lofty ideals I had. If anything, I was just as hungry for publicity as Mark Mitchell. Actually, no, that isn't humanly possible. But I'm profoundly embarrassed by some of the things I am quoted as saying in the Australian media back then. When journalists are prepared to write whatever you say, and you yourself believe these inanities to be profound, you're going to come across as an egomaniacal prat. Some of my comments about a Greek shop-owner called Con the Fruiterer, arguably our most popular character, were very ill considered. At least, they read that way in the press. These quotes later appeared in someone's doctorate thesis, and I didn't come out of it very well. Mind you, the writer of the thesis had taken all of my quotes from a TV Week interview, and the magazine wasn't renowned as an accurate source.

Mark Mitchell flanked by his writing team. Peter Herbert and I wrote most of the Con the Fruiterer material.

I think the stupidest thing I said was that 'the price of sketch comedy is eternal vigilance'. It's a variation on a quote by Jefferson, who wrote that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. I wanted to get across the idea that there was always so much demand for sketches to fill the show's weekly episodes, that I looked at everything in terms of whether or not it could somehow be transformed into a sketch. But it was a pretentious thing to say. When I later joined the writing staff of another sketch show, Fast Forward, which had much better production values than The Comedy Company, I was surprised that the writers knew about my 'eternal vigilance' remark and it kept cropping up, never flatteringly.

I join the writing team of a highly sophisticated, intellectual comedy show.

Back in 1987 I was extremely lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I had two extraordinary years with The Comedy Company, and I'm sorry it ended badly. After two years, Ian McFadyen wanted to give The Comedy Company a rest. But Mark Mitchell, Kim Gyngell and I wanted to keep doing comedy, even if it wasn't The Comedy Company. We were spectacularly naïve about how television works. When we were told that we would be free to devise new shows for the Network, we took management at face value. Of course, all the Network wanted was to keep The Comedy Company running on Sunday nights at 7.30, where it had been for nearly two years. Once I'd signed, it was made clear that Ten wanted me to get a replacement for The Comedy Company on air within about eight weeks. It was a horrible time. Ian McFadyen thought that the whole thing had been a calculated takeover bid on my part. Ian, as many people know, is brilliant but exasperating. He's one of those people who can be kind, then not kind, then affable all in the space of one sentence. He sent me legal letters promising that I would be in deepest shit if I dared use any ideas that had been generated during The Comedy Company's two year run. I'd never intended to, but the threats didn't make my job any easier. I was also in the weird situation of working for a TV network that was in receivership. While I was trying to make a show, accountants were wandering around looking for stuff to sell. The Australian economy had plummeted. Many Comedy Company people - myself included - had made poor investments and ended up losing much of the money we'd made. That didn't really bother me as much as the fact that what had been a real joy for two years ended up in so much acrimony.

But that was over twenty years ago. We're all friends again. Though Ian does still drive me mad.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Who is Stephen Harris?

Splendid chap. All three of him.

Most science fiction fans will know what authors Arthur C. Clarke, Charles Willis and E.G. O'Brien have in common. The answer is, their DNA, since all three are the same man. There are all sorts of reasons for choosing a pseudonym. If you are known specifically for one type of work, but long to try your hand at another, then writing under a pseudonym means the reader comes to this new work with no preconceptions. Thus author Jennifer Rowe continues to write her crime novels under her given name, but her children's books under the name of Emily Rodda, and sometimes Mary-Anne Dickinson.

Emily Rodda's book, Pigs Might Fly, which won the CBC Book of the Year Award in 1987. The reason I'm so familiar with it is that I came second.

She's spectacularly successful, no matter which name she chooses. Sometimes authors believe they can escape legal action if they write scurrilous material under a pseudonym. This is risky, because if the book is a real hot potato, someone will usually blow your cover. Some authors have other high profile jobs and think they might lose credibility if the public also knows them for the raunchy novels they write in their spare time. Would you trust your surgeon if you knew that he or she also wrote gothic horror stories? There's no reason you shouldn't, of course, but people sometimes get funny about things like that.

The surgeon will see you now.

Gerald Wiley was a highly successful sketch writer, a key contributor to countless episodes of The Two Ronnies, a comedy show that gave us plenty of laughs in the seventies and eighties. It's still funny. You can see some fine examples of their work on YouTube. No one realised, but Gerald Wiley was one of the show's two stars. Nervous about submitting material under his own name, and not wanting to influence the production team one way or another, Ronnie Barker invented what must be the least glamorous pseudonym in history. I apologise to any Geralds or Wileys who may be reading.

The late, incredibly great Ronnie Barker.

 As more and more of Gerald Wiley's material found its way into the show, because it was very good indeed, there was a search for the elusive Mr Wiley, who gave no home address, merely a post office box number. In the end Ronnie Barker threw a party in order to introduce his alter ego. I get the feeling it would have been a very colourful affair.

... and it's good night from him.

As a rule, don't use a pseudonym unless you really feel that you must. Fantasy writers often come up with pseudonyms because they prefer them to their own mundane names. Trust me, a publisher will look more kindly on a manuscript written by Jan Burke than one by Morgana Starshine. I apologise again to any Morganas or Starshines that may be reading. It looks even worse for you if you put one of those copyright notices on the front of your manuscript. 'Copyright Morgana Starshine' simply isn't a good look, especially as Australian law means that your work is automatically your own copyright as soon as you've written it. Putting that little copyright symbol alongside your ornate pseudonym is telling your publisher two things: (1) I think you're a thief. (2) I'm probably mental.

Don't presume all unlikely sounding names are pseudonyms. A journalist once asked musician/satirist/actor/sex-god Eddie Perfect how he came to have such a weird pseudonym. Eddie replied, truthfully, that his parents were Mr Perfect and Mrs Perfect.

Mr and Mrs Perfect's bundle of joy.

This brings me to the only time I've ever used a pseudonym, one that is listed in the catalogue of the National Library of Australia. I once had a lot of fun with publisher Jane Covernton, carrying out a correspondence in the guise of a poetic nun called Sister Madge Mappin. But of course Jane found out, because she wanted to publish the book, and the whole thing became serious business. But Jane Covernton, who is one of the best publishers in this country, produced another book for which I supplied the text in 2009.

A really good book.

It's a beautiful thing, called Ballroom Bonanza, with artwork by local legend Nina Rycroft. Nina had done pictures of animals attending a gala dance event at the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool in England. Because Nina's grandfather Tommy Jones used to be the bandleader at this venue, Nina felt a particular attachment to the pictures. She went to Blackpool more than once to photograph the place, to make sure that the book was faithful to its subject matter - well, as faithful as a book about dancing animals can be. 

The only book in the world to feature numbats dressed as Tina Turner.

Even though Nina had the concept of the book in her head, she didn't have a text. Jane Covernton called me in to come up with the words. Because I liked the pictures so much, I was happy to write the text again and again until everyone was happy. I chose a pseudonym because I knew that my main publisher Penguin got antsy if I worked for other publishers.

Well, you try to think of an animal beginning with the letter U.

The pseudonym I chose was Stephen Harris. The American version of the book has a cover flap on which are the biographies of the book's creators. I had to make up stuff about Stephen Harris that was true of my own life, but that focussed on different aspects. Thus my early career in ABC radio suddenly became more important. The pseudonym led to other niggly little problems that made me wish I'd used my own name and been brave enough to stand up to Penguin.

This picture does not appear in Ballroom Bonanza.

Nina deserves a lot of kudos for the book. I hope it's one of those sleepers that will take off again one day, ensuring more fame and money for Nina and the pseudonymous, cringing Stephen.

I started this post by referring to science fiction fans. I wonder how many of them realise why I chose Stephen Harris as a pseudonym. Here's a clue.