So we picked up a copy of Greg Fleet’s latest book These Things Happen pretty much the moment it hit the shops. Why wouldn’t we? Fleet is a comedy titan: a legend of the local stand-up scene, a regular on television for close to twenty years, and always good for a laugh on radio show Get This. Trouble is, this isn’t really a book about that stuff: this is a book about his extensive career as a professional junkie.
So, as comedy fans first and junkie fans last, how does this stack up? This isn’t a full review – the book only came out last week and we’ve barely had time to dig beneath our initial impressions. But we figured those impressions are still worth sharing, even if we reserve the right to bang on about this book in more depth later on. Bring on the bullet points!
*okay, so we all know the book is about drugs. Lots and lots of drugs. Fleet estimates he spent “millions of dollars” on drugs over the years, and considering he estimates at one stage he was pulling in $400,000 a year ($300,000 from radio, $100,000 from stand-up and other performing work), that seems more than plausible. And if you’ve come for a steady stream of stories about horrible drug-fucked behaviour, congrats!
*Far be it for us to suggest that Fleet’s two decades worth of hard core drug use has dented his attention span, but this is a book that wanders all over the place and all over his life, though there is a rough chronology to the overall sweep of things. There are snippets on bad gigs, being paid as a comedy guru, drug-fuelled tour stories and so on, and they’re all good stuff. But they pop up seemingly as they come to mind rather than part of a well-structured story.
*Some chapters, like “Exile on Christmas Street”, are just ramblings – if you ever wanted to get the impression of a book where they threw everything in to hit the word count, here you go. But they do give an insight into Fleet’s “voice” – there’s not much reason for them to be left in, but they do sound a lot like what it might be like to spend time with Fleet.
*While Fleet’s focus might wander, there’s no denying that he’s sharp as a tack when he wants to be. Those of you who remember the Mick Molloy / Tony Martin feud from close to a decade ago might be wondering which side Fleet – who’s worked with both men – is on. On the one hand, Fleet never even mentions it. On the other, an comedy anecdote starts with this:
“The show featured myself, The Empty Pockets (Matt Quatermaine and Matt Parkinson, a successful double act and long time partners of mine), Mick Molloy, and the hardest-working man in showbiz, the greatest comic mind I have ever seen, Tony Martin.”
You get the idea. No superlatives for Mr Molloy.
*Those who remember Get This might remember a catchy little ditty “Pushed off or stabbed off” (sung to the tune of the I Dream of Jeanie theme). Fleet doesn’t: he remembers a version that goes “Stabbed off or fell off”
*Remember Fleet’s previous successful shows about his drug use?
1. They were lies. I was still using when I did them and was desperately trying to convince people that I was clean
2. I changed events to make myself look like a victim, or a better or more rational person than I was. I wanted to have done all of that stuff and still be everyone’s friend. Clearly, that is not going to happen.
*There’s quite a sad chapter where Fleet reminisces about much-loved Get This producer Richard Marsland, but it does feature this bit:
“Something I have never discussed is that I find it impossible to form a picture in my mind of Richard’s last moments. My brain and heart just won’t let me imagine that scene.”
Never discussed until now, you mean. Also, who tries to imagine stuff like that?
*It’s very much a “warts and all” portrait, and not just because of his massive drug use and often appalling behaviour. It’s also very revealing of the kind of guy Fleet is. Which is to say, if you’ve spent much time at all wondering about what kind of person would choose to stand in front of a crowd and try to win them over for a living night after night, this gives you a pretty good idea.
*While his partner is giving birth to their child, he steals $100 from her purse to go score heroin. There’s a lot more of this kind of thing in this book but that’s pretty much all you need to know right there about what being a junkie is about. And for much of this book, Greg Fleet is a junkie.
*Fleet knows all this. He talks about how his bond with Lawrence Mooney is based on a mutual need for approval (while also trying to shock and appal), he talks about how all authors are wankers because they snubbed him at a publishing event – but then he turns that into a joke against himself, which doesn’t exactly hide the fact that his most severe vitriol of the book is directed towards a group of people who didn’t embrace him.
*Comedians are largely named. Fleet’s junkie friends are not. Guess who “The Actor” and “The Movie Star” really are! Here’s a clue: they were junkies around St Kilda during the 90s. Also, if you tell us who they are we promise not to print your answer because we’re not that keen to dig our own grave just yet. Supposedly The Movie Star was really disappointed he didn’t get to join in on a (fake) gay sex session between Fleet and The Actor. Remembering this makes Fleet smile every time he sees The Movie Star playing a tough guy role.
*It’s also a very patchy book, with lots of chapters starting off with stuff like “I’m writing this in Adelaide 2012”, which doesn’t really add much to proceedings apart from the feeling that this could have done with a really rigorous edit. Then again, a rigorous edit might have involved pointing out that at least some of this gear is old rope for long-time Fleet fans.
Although Fleet has been claiming to be newly clean in every interview he’s done in the past decade…
Oh wait, we meant to quote this bit:
He’s strip-mined his own life for material, writing shows about his relationship breakdowns, his disastrous holiday in Thailand (the basis for his book Thai Die), and the story of his deadbeat American father, who abandoned the family when Fleet was small.
Anything he does, and every person he comes in contact with, is scrutinised for potential comedic fodder. His life, it seems, is set permanently on a track of “Can I use it or not?”. His shows and stand-up routines are not so much written as born out of verbal sparring with fellow comedians.
*At our first glance the most interesting comedy bit is where he explains his use of the phrase “they look good, like a faggot in a ditch”. Basically, it’s an inside joke – he and Mooney were trying to horrify each other and the phrase stuck. Then Fleet tries to explain how this particular inside joke works, which is interesting because “Inside joke” or “you had to be there” is usually all most of us need to understand that a): something was hilarious for b): reasons that can’t easily be explained. But explain Fleet tries:
It seems what makes the joke work is the tension between the horrible things being said and the actual moral views of the person saying them. A random stranger saying something awful is awful; someone that you know is kind-hearted and generous saying something awful about poor people can be funny. It’s not an amazingly profound insight, but the fact he works hard to explain it goes some way towards showing how devoted Fleet is to comedy, even in a book largely sold on his scary tales of drug excess.
*So is it worth it from a comedy point of view? For sure: Fleet has been there and done that and what he’s got to say is always worth a read. And while we’d have much preferred a more focused book looking at his comedy career, it’s the horrific tales of junkie-dom that have been getting this particular book all the attention. And some of those stories are pretty funny too.
Long story short: We paid recommended retail for These Things Happen, and we haven’t regretted it yet.