In a new, and no doubt soon to be highly irregular, feature of this blog, Bean Is A Carrot trawls through her collection of books about Australian comedy.
What makes a good book about comedy? As someone who’s read many I used to think the key was thorough research and good writing, but then I got my hands on a book about comedy which blew that theory apart.
Wanted for Questioning: Interviews with Australian comic artists by Murray Bramwell and David Matthews, published by Allen & Unwin in 1992, is both thoroughly researched and well written, yet thoroughly researched prose isn’t the book’s main feature – it’s interviews, conducted by either Bramwell or Matthews, with around 30 comedians. Each interview transcript is preceded by a short biography of the interviewee, and details of where and when the interview took place – and apart from a three-page introduction to the book, that’s it. It may sound potentially boring (or even that the authors were too lazy to write a proper book) but that’s not the case. This is the best book about Australian comedy I’ve ever read, and that the book consists almost entirely of transcripts (albeit slightly edited ones) is its strength. It’s 30 or so comedians responding to a series of questions in their own words, with no misinterpretation of those words by the authors, and no surrounding paragraphs of waffle.
Another reason for this book’s greatness is that Bramwell and Matthews timed it right. They conducted their interviews in 1990 and 1991 – the height of the so-called “comedy boom” – when Australian television was awash with that generation of comedians who’d started out in Melbourne’s cabaret and comedy club scene in the 70s and 80s. As such, many of those interviewed, although no one knew this at the time, were at the peak of their fame. Memories of The Big Gig are fresh in Jean Kittson’s mind because she’s in the middle of making it. Ditto Marg Downey and Fast Forward, or Andrew Denton and The Money or the Gun.
Those interviewed are also refreshingly candid and open about television and the comedy industry. Rod Quantock seemingly had no qualms about confirming those rumours about how the concept for Steve Vizard’s Tonight Live was developed:
…I was asked to do the preliminary work on Tonight Live. What Tonight Live did was to get lots of tapes of the David Letterman Show with no beg-your pardons. The whole concept is a foreign concept and used no local grey matter at all. They went through the motions I suppose but they ended up saying: ‘There’s an original idea that someone else had and it works, that’ll be fine for us too’.
Satirist and cartoonist Patrick Cook is equally critical, although this time of Channel 9’s approach to comedy:
I can’t believe that Channel 9’s had Clarkie [John Clarke] sitting on his bum in the backroom for five years and the most they’ve got out of him is doing the interviews – I can understand why that’s all he wanted to do. Channel 9’s been notorious for years for playing a spoiler role anyway. They kept The D-Generation in a backroom too, for a year and a half.
Can you imagine today’s equivalents of Quantock or Cook biting the hand that feeds them?
Then there’s the fascinating revelation from Marg Downey, that her place in the cast of The D-Generation wasn’t a given, despite having been in the university revue it grew out of.
…I had to audition. All the boys were automatically accepted. There were two girls in the show and the other one didn’t make it. And the producer didn’t want me. He said “That girl’s not funny; we won’t have her”. I had to audition and luckily, I got through somehow, by the skin of my teeth.
And that’s just scratching the surface. There are plenty more fascinating gems amongst the interviews with Barry Humphries, John Clarke, Michael Leunig, Paul McDermott, Max Gillies, Billy Birmingham, Greg Pickhaver and John Doyle, Mary Coustas and Nick Giannopoulos, Wendy Harmer, and many others. But should this article have inspired you to seek out a copy of Wanted for Questioning…, I should warn you that it won’t be easy. It took me about a year of searching on ABE Books for a copy to turn up. And while a quick Google reveals that Amazon.com currently have two available, the cheapest costs $61.38. So good luck finding a copy, or indeed one at a reasonable price. Maybe check your local library.