Ashes to Ashes

The Australian cricket team’s performance may have been variable this Ashes, but Warwick Todd’s output in his weekly Ashes column for the Herald-Sun has raised plenty of laughs. Warwick (AKA Tom Gleisner) is a veteran of many an Ashes series and is the author of four volumes of tour diaries (available in all good second-hand bookshops). As sports-themed comedy goes, it’s hard to find anyone funnier – or better able to make non-sports fans laugh.

Take this extract from a recent column, who’s going to argue with a set-up like this?:

Several days of hot weather made it very hard to pick up the red ball against a sea of sunburned English spectators. And talk about a hostile crowd!

Lunchtime on the very first day I actually had someone say to my face that I was a “boorish Colonial who couldn’t bat for sh–“.

Not exactly what you’d expect from Her Majesty the Queen but she was obviously struggling in the heat.

This kind of gag is a Gleisner staple, and he’s got a million of them. You’ll find them in Audrey’s Kitchen, Santo, Sam & Ed, and those news desk segments he did on The Late Show. It’s kind of a shame Gleisner hasn’t got a regular column where he can talk about anything in the news – these are lot funnier than most of the humour columns you get in what’s left of the press.

And it’s not like Australia has a long and proud tradition of comedy columnists either. News Ltd, despite having Adam Zwar as their relationship columnist many years ago, almost never goes for straight comedy, preferring instead a clump of people waffling on with wry observations about fuck all. Realistically, Todd is appearing in their pages because he’s a “celebrity” who’s had a number of books published, not because he’s actually funny; if one of the Masterchef hosts said they wanted to write funny columns about The Ashes, Todd’d be boned faster than, um, something cooking related on Masterchef.

Over at Fairfax we have Danny Katz. Gaaah. Fun fact: in the mid ‘90s The Age had a new editor fresh from the UK who spotted that Katz – already well past his prime even back then so God knows what he’s like now – had written a classic “I’ve got nothing to write about” column and promptly sacked his lazy arse. Cue massive outrage and a good old fashioned letter writing campaign, while Katz himself swanned over to The Bulletin for a year or so until The Age waved enough money around to lure him back. You know those newspaper readers who’d (supposedly – no-one’s ever game to test the theory out) riot if Fred Basset was removed from the paper, despite it literally being the unfunniest and most pointless thing ever created? Danny Katz fans, every last one of them.

No, usually what we get stuck with under the guise of “comedy” is people failing to do the job they’ve been hired to do – hello every single television columnist for The Age in the 21st century (Catherine Deveny, Marieke Hardy Ben Pobjie) -in favour of wandering off topic when it suits them. It’s not that we want these stiflingly unfunny but self-obsessed types to write flat-out comedy, as we’d rather they wrote nothing at all, but at least if they were forced to write columns branded as “humour” it’d quickly become obvious exactly how unfunny they are.

Otherwise, well, the sports pages often have someone trying to be funny, but as we know nothing about sport it’s difficult to judge their success (The Age’s Leaping Larry is an exception; he’s often pretty good). Peter Ruhel was consistently funny right up until his (sadly premature) death. The trashier men’s magazines usually at least try to run more humour-based columns if you dare open them up, and we all remember Mick Molloy’s brief run as a columnist for The Truth in the early part of 1993 (who’s we, sucker?- ed). Someone actually made an archive of Hamish Blake’s columns for Cosmo, if that’s what you’re into.

It’s tempting – and probably accurate – to see this as a reflection of Australia’s largely stand-up based comedy culture, where good material (or more realistically, “good” material) is seen as something to be carefully treasured and guarded, rather than seeing the ability to write comedy as something that should be exercised as often as possible. Instead of writing a funny column, having it see print, then starting again next week to develop the ability to actually be funny, our comedy writers and performers seem to see writing actual comedy (in contrast to talking crap on panel shows and radio) more as something you do in brief spurts then try to stretch out the results for as long as possible.

But thinking about it, the lack of comedy columnists makes sense: why throw away good stuff in a newspaper when you could tour it for months, then try and sell it to a sketch show? It also explains why most of our comedy writing in this country is rubbish. Here’s a tip: the more you do something, the better you get at it. That awesome joke you came up with? It’s not that awesome. Trying to train yourself to become able to create jokes that awesome every week would be a lot more awesome, really.

As evidence we cite Clarke & Dawe, which started as a newspaper column featuring a different “interview” with a public figure each week. As legend has it, British comedy superstar Peter Cook, during his late-80s visit to Melbourne for the Comedy Festival, suggested John Clarke start to perform the columns. So, Clarke contacted radio comedy producer Bryan Dawe, they tried it out, it worked, and they started performing them each week on ABC radio. Then a A Current Affair came calling…and the rest is history!

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  • Andrew says:

    “hello every single television columnist for The Age in the 21st century (Catherine Deveny, Marieke Hardy Ben Pobjie)”

    Dianne Butler, Tony Squires…

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    There’s some depths to which even we won’t sink.

  • philly says:

    The final time I read one of Dianne Butler’s columns was when she referred to the Blackadder series as ‘drivel’.
    Wil Anderson wrote a regular column in the Sunday Herald-Sun magazine a few years back. Pretty fluffy, forgettable stuff if I recall. I bet that Anderson hopes no-one archived the particularly nasty one he wrote about Heath Ledger prior to the actor’s death.
    Shame that Tony Martin ceased his own website ‘Scriviners Fancy’ a couple of years back. Its a sad reflection that his columns were rejected by the major papers and he couldn’t even find a publisher to release the archived columns in book-form, forcing Martin to self-publish them as an ebook on his own website.

  • Jake Wilson says:

    Actually, the Danny Katz incident occurred in 2005, not in the mid-1990s – Katz only started writing for the Age in 1996 – and he was rehired only a couple of weeks later. Speaking of the Bulletin, surely even the briefest survey of Australian humour columnists – a richer tradition than you seem to think – ought to mention Patrick Cook.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Thanks for the correction – clearly our memories are starting to fade under the burden of constantly trying to remember what year The Comedy Sale went out. As for Cook, we were clearly remiss in overlooking his work as a columnist*. Feel free to let us know of anyone else we overlooked – we’re opinionated, not claiming to be perfect.

    *His work on the various Good News Week programs is another matter entirely.