Hey, a guest post! We think it’s an interesting look at a dark-ish corner of the Australian comedy business. As you’ll probably figure out, there’s a reason why it’s anonymous.
Many years ago, in 1999, I had a short conversation with a well-known lawyer-turned-comedian. He was in an office in one of the ABC buildings, which, he said more than once, was not his. He was there writing a sitcom set in a legal practice, and seemed relieved to have an excuse to stop for a minute.
“I’m writing about lawyers because you have to write what you know,” he said.
“Yes but you know this business as well now,” I said, meaning the business of show.
“I would never write about this business,” he said, with a serious look.
“Yes,” I said. “Corpses everywhere.”
I knew what he meant because I was one of the corpses.
I was at the ABC being one of the faces on a current affairs sketch show, called, shall we say, Frontburner. It was to be another frustrating experience. You’re given a script that is kind of satire-by-numbers – it isn’t very funny, but it’s making a point. You know if there’s going to be any laughs you’ll have to make them happen in the performance – so I opted for a Pixie-Anne Wheatley, vacuous but insanely cheerful persona. Three rehearsals later, everyone liked it. Everyone except the leading lady of the series. Just before the show was to be recorded, the director came over and had a word.
“Eloise doesn’t like that you’re playing the character dumb. She doesn’t like the female characters to be dumb. So could you play it more straight please.”
There were no more rehearsals. I had to kill my buoyant bimbo and do it like an ABC bitch. I did it, with one small fluff. There were no laughs. At the end I bowed my head too quickly because I was pissed off.
I had to do it again. So I thought, fuck it, let’s just enjoy ourselves. I did it all Pixie-Anne, and there were several laughs. The director was happy. But I knew I would never be asked back.
The intense competitiveness of what is really a small industry in a small country, combined with the massive overrepresentation of men at the helm of most comedy vehicles at that time, meant one thing – the women felt that they had to kneecap each other to keep their jobs. And they did it with gusto. A similar thing happened at another show on a commercial network, shall we call it, Empty Façade. I was a writer there, and was offered a spot playing a newsreader. Immediately a woman in the cast went to the producer and demanded a promise that I not be offered any more roles. Of course he acquiesced. He called it ‘ruffled feathers’.
So returning to the conversation I began with, what on earth did that popular comedian mean when he said he would never write about this business? Surely there’s an Australian version of 30 Rock just waiting to be written. There at the centre of it all you have put-upon Liz, holding everything together, surrounded by diva performers, slovenly writers and a crazy boss. Poor Liz, she’s the hero that makes the magic happen. Only it isn’t magic – it’s mediocre.
You can’t write about the business because you would have to change it beyond recognition to make it amusing. This is a business where there is no right and wrong, there’s only success and failure. The scandal that erupted around Hey Dad did not surprise me, nor would it surprise anyone who had seen behind the curtain – the show was high in the ratings, why on earth would anyone have rocked that boat? They all had mortgages to pay, after all. It’s an amazing, enabling, all-excusing thing, a mortgage, I’ve found – just drop the m-word and everything is justified. I’ve never had a mortgage, I got the impression early in life that it makes you do unpleasant things.
Maybe that’s a bit harsh – the Hey Dad example is probably the worst imaginable scenario. But it’s the calibre of the people attracted to the business that creates this environment. They are people with something to prove, and they crave attention, power, influence, and of course money. Recently a project I was involved with came to the attention of a producer. For a brief moment it looked possible that my series might actually be made. But the man who had hooked me up with the producer was the kind of amoral low-life I knew all too well. I thought – if this goes ahead, I will have to spend a vast amount of time with the most awful, insincere, manipulative, grasping arseholes, as opposed to spending time with, say, my daughter. So when nothing came of it, a large part of me was massively relieved.
Oh dear, such a jaundiced view! I am a corpse, remember. While working on Empty Façade (loving that name) I was bombarded with unwanted sexual attention. My friend and I decided that this was happening mainly because I was the only female in the writers’ room. Eighteen men and me. It’s OK at the start, if you like the company of funny men, which I did, but after a while the constant gags wear thin. You realise you’re not a part of it, you’re not a part of anything, you’re just there. I was not the only female writer who worked on that show to get to the point of going home and crying to the point of retching. I know that for a fact.
So you can’t take the heat, huh? Too emotional. Sad. Well that’s OK if everyone is happy with only a certain kind of personality making their entertainment for them. The tough ones, the aggressive ones, the ones who understand the politics. That’s great, and we’re all grateful if there’s a little bit of talent there as well. That’s just a lovely bonus.
Let’s skip to the endgame, to the nail in the coffin of my experience at Empty Façade. Perhaps I brought it on myself, by renting a room in the house of another writer, only this writer was on the up. He was, shall we say, politically gifted, he knew who mattered and who didn’t, knew what words to say into which ear, and was driven by a horror of ever being poor. He was perfect, and clearly had a great future ahead of him. We got along alright in the house, I was amiable enough – he even called me the perfect housemate. But as my so-called career crashed and burned, and his was on the rise, it became intolerable to stay in the house, and I left. But a friend of mine decided to tell him, “I think she hates you,” when the subject came up. And this writer who I had lived with, who had now attained producer status, now had the power to decide who worked on the show and who didn’t. And when my name came up for an acting gig, he delivered the decisive blow. Can you guess which word he used, ladies? It’s a d-word.
“She’s difficult,” he said.
And that was it. Job done. Game over.
Foolishly, I thought I would be able to move on to something else. But it is a small industry in a small country. And eventually I left both.