Most of the Chaser met while you were studying at Sydney, what were you like back in the day?
I wore skivvies. I saw a photo of myself the other day wearing a skivvy. It wasn’t even winter. I was wearing one as though it was a normal piece of clothing outside a ski resort.
I was a terrible student, but I threw myself into extra-curricular. That was my real education; drama, debating, revues. And I kissed a girl for the first time.
And the other Chaser boys? Do you remember your first impressions of them?
Julian [Morrow] was a high performer, a very good debater in fact. A lot of people were very surprised when he joined the Chaser, as it didn’t square with their view of him as this very straight logical man.
Andrew [Hansen] I saw in Arts Review in my third year, and I thought, ‘that’s the sort of guy I came to university to meet’. He was just a head and shoulders above everyone else. He was in every sketch, and could do every accent.
Charles Firth – I hope he doesn’t mind me saying that I thought he was a complete wanker. You know those sort of people who turn up on day one wanting to be a campus identity? He was political, he threw himself into everything, ran for SRC in his first year. He was a great self-promoter, and exactly the sort of person I despised. But then I met him and he was incredibly warm and generous. Charles’ great skill is to realise that he can further himself by surrounding himself by good people. So I think all of us owe him great thanks and a great debt, because he sort of spotted us.
What do you think are your fondest memories of university?
Around that time, we set up something called the Port Club. We were very inspired by the Dead Poet’s Society. Each Sunday someone would have to write a paper on a pretentious topic, and I remember having a particularly robust debate about whether to donate sperm. After the meeting we used to drive our cars very recklessly around the Quad. Security used to come quite quickly, so we used to have some wonderful car chases.
You are currently co-performing ‘One Man Show’ with Andrew Hansen. How does theatre compare to television?
On TV you coach your audience to clap and you have editing power. In a live show it’s quite liberating to be warts and all, it feels much warmer and cosier in the room.
It’s also different because you really only have fans who come to watch. Comedy on TV these days has become almost a blood sport. It can be quite brutal being on the receiving end. With The War on Everything, after we had some big controversies, it felt a bit like everyone was just tuning in to tear the show down. With a live show it is insulated from that conservative shock jock culture.
Do you think comedy cycles intersect with political currents? Does comedy always flourish under conservative governments?
I take the view that comedy thrives when there are bad governments. The last Labor government was farcical, and that was a great time to be writing comedy. Pleasingly, the new government is proving itself to be just as farcical. The Labor party was in functional disarray, whereas this government is putting forward a series of interestingly aggressive ideological views, which for satirical comedy, is manna from heaven. There is plenty of meat on the bone. Politicians of both sides are generally flawed and disappointing, and often some very interesting comedy comes out of left wing governments, which go back on the causes they champion, or cave to entrenched interests.
Perhaps though, to be funny you need to be a bit subversive, or disruptive – an instinct at odds with conservatism?
The tools and structures of comedy are to turn something upside down, or place it in a different context to amuse us. I mean there are funny conservatives, but they are thin on the ground. I guess because their default position is to preserve rather than subvert. [He gestures toward the teapot.] If I say “This is a teapot,” there is nothing funny about that. If I try and turn the teapot into something else…we have humour!
A lot of your humour relied on an outsider status, critiquing the media and politicians from a ‘cheeky underdog’ kind of position. Did it become more difficult as the Chaser became part of the establishment?
Yes, I can’t speak for the others, but I certainly enjoyed the show less as it got more popular. That show worked because it was a cult show; a small niche club for people who wanted to disrupt society both literally and satirically. The moment it became sort of a mainstream entity, we became the people we used to mock. It was one of the reasons we wound down the war on everything and came back with The Hamster Wheel, a deliberately much more niche and esoteric show.
We kind of did want to lose some of our audience. You can see it in the final season, there is some very black humour in there, and I think unconsciously we were a bit embarrassed, and wanted to get our cred back.
The other guys might disagree, but I certainly felt that, and I wrote a lot of the skits. Through that final season I kept apologising to my comedy friends for selling out.
Any advice for young people wanting to get into media or comedy?
Make lots of things, develop your craft, and accrue things to put on your CV. The less obvious thing is don’t stop consuming media. Read The Grapes of Wrath – it’s amazing how good writing informs your language, and your sensibility. Watch everything. See what is working. Inhabit the world.
It’s a great excuse to do fun things, being a comedian. Some members of the Chaser, who shall remain unnamed, are shocking with tax. They say, “Well, I might write a show about tea one day”, so this teapot is a tax expense.
Do you think a lot of comedic success is bluff?
God yes, everyone is bluffing. Comedians are the most nervous, poorly adjusted, insecure people you will ever meet. If a comedian asks you out – don’t go. You have got to be full of neurosis to be driven to go up and ask for public approval night after night.
A lot of young people wanting a creative career face pressure from family, and are apprehensive about the risks. Was that an issue for you?
Absolutely. It is a very irresponsible career, and I do understand young people being worried about that. It doesn’t work out for everyone, but equally it might! You don’t want to die wondering.
I come from a family of very conservative lawyers, and even now they say things like, “Well, you’ve had your fun, but it’s time to settle down. No one wants to hear your jokes forever! It’s time to knuckle down, here are some brochures.”