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.
The Tasmanian state library system has two copies available to the public for any interested Tassie persons. I’ve got it reserved, so further comments pending.
Huh, if you hadn’t just inspired me to give it a fresh look with more mature eyes, I would have offered up my copy for postage. It really disappointed me at the time of it’s release when I bought it, precisely because it was released in the middle of a comedy boom and seemed to miss out all the comedians I thought were fabulous at the time (the Found Objects, Greg Fleet, anyone from Let the Blood Run Free, anyone who was doing stand up at the Espy, and of course The D-Gen radio line up). I was always hoping for another Australian comedy book release that was more than just interview based, something that followed the Roger Wilmut model. But, it never happened. And of course, the subjects memories would have sadly detoriated now.
I’d like to see this kind of book released every five years or so, with interviews with whoever’s big in comedy at that time. There are many people missing from this book, but that’s true of every book on comedy. What I liked about it was that those interviewed were very open and had fresh memories on the shows they’re best known for.
What I probably didn’t stress enough in my review is that it’s very much of its era. Books written 5 or so years later maybe told you more of the overall story, but those interviewed seemed less open and willing to talk about the behind the scene machinations. Wanted for Questioning… seems to have come about just as the comedy industry was starting to become like every other branch of showbiz, full of people worried about where their next job was coming from, rather than living their art and hang the consequences.
I’m fairly sure this is one of those books that turns up often in second-hand bookstores – the comedy section is always worth a look because there seems to be next to no resale / re-reading value in the books, so there’s a lot more discarded gold than you’d find in other sections. Old DAAS CDs seem impossible to find, for example, but their books are still out there if you look.
My first reading of this didn’t exactly impress, but that could have been because it didn’t speak with more than a handful of people I was interested in. It really was perfectly timed to capture a snapshot of the high-water mark in Australian comedy – I just wish they’d managed another book a few years later when some of the dead wood had fallen away and the survivors were the people doing the really interesting stuff. Then again, we might have just got more interviews with the cast of Three Men and a Baby Grand, Cluedo, The Comedy Sale and Kitson / Fahey.
Thing is, I’d love to read a full and frank interview with Jonathan Biggins (or the other two) about Three Men and a Baby Grand. Maybe we’d find out what went wrong. For all we know a masterpiece was screwed up by clueless ABC producers.
There’s some fascinatingly frank analysis of Fast Forward and The Comedy Company from some of the interviewees in this book, and inside information on many other shows to boot. You just don’t get that type of information in any of the other histories of Australian comedy out there – they’re uncritical, and they basically just skim the surface of the big story.
True, flops are usually a lot more interesting than the success stories. I’d love to read even an in-depth article on the failure of The Comedy Sale (which was axed after a handful of episodes -two I think – back when that kind of thing never happened). Being a Sydney counter / version of Fast Forward and failing so badly must have put a crimp in the progress of comedy in this country (much like, I’d argue, the fizzle of The Mick Molloy Show did).
These books often suffer with hindsight too – as you point out, they could hardly predict the shows we’d still be interested in a decade down the track. I’ll have to dig out my copy for a re-read.
(that said, Three Men and a Baby Grand was NEVER going to work. My guess is some producer still felt loyality to the Gillies Report team, even though everyone funny had left a decade earlier. see also: Totally Full Frontal series two)
I was just going to add, I studied under Murray Bramwell, he’s an interesting person, but I had no idea he had written about comedy. Maybe I can ask him if he’s ever going to revisit this sort of area again, or if he has some copies in the back of the boot somewhere.
I guess the other point is the dire state of Australian comedy overall, or for the most point, its lack of existence other than panel shows. Would there be enough to review from the last 10 years or so that didn’t end in disaster – aka radio work by certain actual talents such as Tony Martin or Judith Lucy? I mean there are exceptions clearly such as Clarke and Dawe and of course Shaun Micallef, but because of funding considerations it’s become so lean here now that that’s why I end up wandering back to the UK or the US for comedy continually.
A book like this written now would obviously depend on who the author(s) could get access to, and their particular interests/prejudices, but I’d hope it would include people like Tony Martin, Judith Lucy, Shaun Micallef, Robyn Butler & Wayne Hope, John Clarke & Bryan Dawe, Working Dog, Trent O’Donnell & Phil Lloyd (Myles Barlow), Adam Zwar, Jane Turner & Gina Riley, The Chaser, Charlie Pickering, Sam Simmons, Andrew Denton, Josh Thomas, Wil Anderson, Peter Helliar, Justin Heazlewood, Kym Gyngell, Tom Ballard…basically a mix of people old timers, the currently successful, up-and-comers and the odd wild-card. That was what made Bramwell’s book interesting. He also got the interviewees to be very candid (i.e. explore that climate of crap panel games and no money for sketch shows), which I suspect people would be more reluctant to do these days.
Thanks for your prompt reply Bean. It would indeed be a good selection of people, and I guess as it has been pointed out, there are many disaster stories that could also provide interesting stories. I wonder if it would be possible to get much out of people about Panel shows other than that the funding and the investment climate simply isn’t there anymore. Maybe a possible title for such a book may be called “Whatever Happened to Australian Comedy?”
That I would like to read.