Creative Types with Tom Gleeson

In Virginia Trioli’s new-ish series Creative Types, she “explores the essence of creativity with some of Australia’s greatest artistic minds.” And Tom Gleeson.

Virginia Trioli poses with Tom Gleeson

Was that a cheap shot? Yeah, but Gleeson is kinda the master of the cheap shot. So we think it’s appropriate.

Gleeson is sold to us as a hard-working stand-up who’s forever listening to recordings of his routines and trying to improve them. Apparently, he spends hours cycling around the country town where he lives doing this. We admire his work ethic and his commitment to creating quality comedy. But the problem is, Gleeson’s comedy is not always quality.

Let’s compare two recent-ish Gleeson routines which get a fair bit of attention in Creative Types. The first is some observational material about KeepCups which is fairly average but nevertheless seems to go down well with the audience. Yeah, okay, KeepCups are a bit of a wank. People think they’re saving the planet by bringing their own cup, but they’re not really, are they? We’ll give Gleeson that one.

More contentious is Gleeson’s material on owning a “spare house”. This routine, Gleeson justifies as being “one of the things you’re not supposed to talk about”. And it’s the “things you’re not supposed to talk about” that Gleeson believes are the best areas for comedy.

This is often true of comedy, of course. Saying the unsayable, pricking pretensions, shining a light on hypocrisy, these are all things that comedy can do brilliantly. But – and this is pretty important – only if the audience agrees with you.

Listen to the audience’s muted reaction to Gleeson talking about his spare house. And his justifications for owning it. Yes, he acknowledges, there is a housing crisis, but that’s up to others to fix. There’s a small amount of uncomfortable laughter at this. Undeterred, he doubles down. Unsuccessful people live in share houses, he says. He’s successful, which means he’s got a spare house. The audience, presumably thinking of how much they’re paying in rent, the sky-high cost of their mortgage, or how impossible it is to save for a deposit, are less convinced. Clearly, they preferred laughing at those idiots with their KeepCups. They can afford a KeepCup.

We then hear a bit about Gleeson’s origins. He says he felt like an outsider at his tiny country primary school, and later at the boarding school he attended. At Sydney University, he had a chance to perform and won a comedy competition because he worked hard, doing spots at local clubs to hone his routine. Later we see footage of some of his early routines in the late 90s and early 00s, on Recovery and at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Peter Hellier and Melbourne International Comedy Festival Director Susan Provan pop up to say how hard-working and talented Gleeson is.

We see footage from Skithouse, of Gleeson’s character the Australian Fast Bowler, which Gleeson described as coming from the idea that most sketch show characters are losers and what if a character was a winner. Nice theory, but in the sketch shown the only funny bit is when the Bowler, who’s asked to rescue a cat from a tree, knocks the cat out of the tree with his ball. It’s the comic violence that people are laughing at, not the idea that the Bowler is a winner, making a failure of Gleeson’s theory of comedy.

Speaking of failure, it’s over to The Weekly where we hear about the origins of the Hard Chat segment and Hard Quiz. And, yeah, in these Gleeson does deliver some funny lines from a position of power. But aren’t the funniest bits of Hard Chat and Hard Quiz when the guests/contestants are funnier than him? Gleeson’s punching-down comedy may be why he thinks he’s successful, but his punching-down material isn’t his most successful comedy.

His work getting Grant Denyer and then himself the Gold Logie also gets featured. We discover that Gleeson’s a huge Norman Gunston fan and was inspired by Gunston’s 70s campaign to win the Gold. There are some differences between Gunston’s campaign and Gleeson’s though. Gunston’s campaign was in the context of the central joke of the Gunston character and the Gunston show, that Gunston was a shonky interviewer on a shonky show, on a network that no one watched. So, whether he won or not, there were laughs to be had about the improbability of it all.

Gleeson’s campaign also tried to have it both ways but in (a) different (two) way(s). At the time, Gleeson argued both that the Logies was so shonky that even he could win one, and that his winning the Gold Logie meant he was brilliant. Whereas in the case of Gunston, the joke was more that there was no way that Gunston, who was shonky, could win. It was about the Gunston character being a chancer, rather than a real-life Gleeson actually thinking his win justified everything he’d ever done.

And, yeah, Amanda Keller’s death stare was funny during Gleeson’s victory speech (she was one of the nominees he beat). But maybe she had a point? Tom Gleeson just won something, which he’ll dine out forever more on. Is that actually what we want?

Towards the end of Creative Types, Gleeson describes his act as both trying to make the audience laugh and annoy them. And, yeah, a comedian annoying their audience can sometimes be very effective, in terms of getting them to see other points of view or getting up the noses of people whose noses a comedian should be getting up. But Gleeson isn’t always annoying people for these reasons. A lot of the time, he’s lording it over them. Like he is with his second house.

Is Gleeson then, not only a diligent and hard-working comedian but also on some kind of power trip? A power trip he makes more palatable by doing some audience-friendly routines about minor things that annoy people. And yes, he’s successful, and he makes a good living, but does he deserve it?

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