Not just a crazy aunt

Pat Morrow sat down with the boys from Aunty Donna

We got this image from the Aunty Donna Facebook page.

Aunty Donna’s new show ‘New Show’ is great for all the reasons you can take for granted. Their fear of the sketch show’s forty-minute lull makes for a frenzied pace, a stage presence that never drops below ecstatic, and incredible volume. It’s futurist, bold and very funny.

“When we all started, none of us were writers. Except Sam, who was a writer,” Broden Kelly – a third of the cast – explains.

Now, they’re exploding. They’ve 12 million views on YouTube, they’re selling out shows around the country and have just finished a pilot series with the ABC. Four years ago they were theatre students in Ballarat playing their first festival in a fifty seater they were lucky to have.

“We’d only done plays and maybe had a funny part. The first month was harrowing. We kept coming in for rehearsals. Having nothing. Leaving with nothing, just perpetually. It looked like we’d really set the bar too high by assuming we could be funny.”

They found themselves an incredibly distinct voice. It’s loud and spontaneous and sloppy in all the right places. And while they mightn’t have started as writers, their recent shows have been impeccably crafted.

They structure their shows lightly and effectively. Last year’s Aunty Donna told tale of two sketch troupes – Donna going head to head with The Bubble Bath Boys – and climaxed in a brawl between every character from both shows. It was wafer-thin and wafer-delicious. New Show relies less on narrative, in favour of a series of well-placed audience interactions and a non-plot about the King of Australia.

What’s more, they’ve nailed web-series structure in a really big way. 1999 is a ten-part production that makes its 1999 office setting sometimes feel accidental. It’s an ironic nostalgia that kind of informs the material, and makes for a very good outtake with a VHS sandwich. The wide lapels, Y2K paranoia and primitive computers make every individual episode feel like a meaningful part of a series, without intruding on sketches individually. It’s very good.

“While there might be fun ideas, I think ultimately the audience enjoys the undertone of us just fucking around.” Zach Ruane – another third – says.

Sometimes an idea is pitched and improvised into shape. Other times a conceit is more deliberately worked on, and then tested. Other times, “something horrible will happen to Mark – like a glassing. And that will be enough,” Zach explains.

All the Donna reliables are in New Show: a Masterchef parody goes predictably violent but is still very fun, while an IT help-desk routine tackles the same staple with less bounce and more thought. Both are crowd-pleasers.

Likewise, when a game show host is tagged out for Pausey Pete right before the rapid-fire round, you know you’re in for a classic, but Donna brings such a ferocious spirit to the thing that it doesn’t feel antiquated. You know where it’s going and it goes there proud and big.

Their use of tech is typically on point. It’s hard to bore an audience when you’re keeping time with a driving backing track. The lighting is glorious and the music itself is up to task, even if it’s beginning to feel a little familiar.

“On stage it’s theatrical and you’re engaging with an audience and energy is key,” Zach says, “Imagination is great. It’s a dream factory.”

“The show is evolving and tumbling and turn- ing the whole time. As soon as it becomes stagnant, it sucks.”

It’s hard to pick favourites from New Show because, as in all Aunty Donna shows, the sketches roll and bleed into one another beautifully. It’s a testament to the way the team works on the show as whole, as well as on individual sketches. They are so, so good at managing energy. It’s occasionally breathtaking.

That said: Lord Whoopee manages to stand out. In a preamble, Zach declares the sketch is “in the words of one reviewer, very vulgar and juvenile, even for Aunty Donna’s standards.” A silent movie caricature villain makes a firefighter, then a nurse sit on a whoopee cushion. These people are pulled from the audience, is brilliant, stupid, basic status play and it is outstanding. It’s facile, hammy, and self-aware – the very best of Aunty Donna.

While there’s an overlap between their video material and their stage shows, it’s a division they negotiate thoughtfully. Not every one of their stage sketches makes it online.

“On stage you plant the image in people’s minds. On film you just show them the picture. Whenever we adapt a sketch from the stage we break down why it worked live and see if we can capture that on film,” Sam Lingham, the only writer, says. They’ve gotten good at it. The tight

cuts and quick repetition in clips like Cresps and Found Out I Was Gay quickly push simple ideas to their funny limits with the bounding enthusiasm of their characters on stage.

It’s sweet how earnestly stoked Zach is by the formula’s success: “We never expected them to get more than 300 views and then we woke up one morning and it was 20 000 views. A few months later it was 200 000. Bikie wars is now at – what? A million? But even 200 000… you forget how cool that is.”

It’s not an audience you can short-change or take for granted, though.

“You have to do the best in whatever form you’re working in.”

The team’s most significant video project to date has been their ABC Fresh Blood pilot series. It was a program established to nurture the next generation of Australian comedy exports. It falls to the ABC because, as Broden says, “No-one else is doing it.”

“Fox of course has Open Slather, which was a great opportunity for everyone who’s been on Kath and Kim.”

Zach finishes the thought: “There would be no comedy in Australia if it wasn’t for the ABC – everyone just invests in the acts that the ABC has given the first chance to.”

“For the first time in years we got to involve women in significant roles and it was so much fun. Miranda Tapsell is incredible, and Sally-Anne Upton plays our manager and she is effing hilarious…”

“Sorry for swearing.” Broden says, low and earnest.

Everyone at the table has a turn at saying effing. Sam Lingham, like gutter guards at a bowling alley, steers us back (it’s how he works in a writer’s room too, Broden says).

Tapsell and Upton are both excellent. In fact, all of Donna’s high production video stuff is great. The new sketches are characterised by frantic prop escalation and a palpable sense that Zach can’t believe they’re receiving funding for what they’re doing. He doesn’t try to hide his corpsing as rivers of coins fall out from under his hat in the pilot and it’s the same cheekiness that makes their live shows so loveable. The Fresh Blood blooper reels run about as long as the sketches themselves and has the same seat-of-the-pants energy.

“Validity is the word,” Broden says. “Getting the funding to do high end sketches gives you more validity with an audience that doesn’t know if they like you or not – people who think you’re just a YouTube channel for teenagers are suddenly willing to get on board with you.”

And they’re going to ride this skittish, Fresh Blood-fuelled rocket to the moon.

They talk a lot about how useful the writer’s mindset is. Broden, Zach and Sam constantly push conversation into jokes. We met in exact- ly the sort café that plenty of their video sketches start in and it feels like we’re on the cusp of a musi- cal number or mindless act of comedy violence.

It’s never tedious, just the fuckaround fun that they have taken to the stage and web to rightful acclaim. New Show is brilliantly constructed, spit-flecked exciting, and bafflingly unique. It is a must-see. Aunty Donna is a must-see. They’ve done very well indeed.