Tim and Debbie Stand in it Again
Jan McGuinness prescribes a second dose of the lethal satire otherwise
known as Australia, You're Standing In It which after only ten
weeks on ABC-TV last year gained a cult following as it sliced through
pretension, authority and ineptness and, incidentally, made stars of
several performers and writers.
If it is almost a year since you have said amazing without
feeling self-conscious, or watched a lyrical television commercial
without sniggering in recollection of Chunky Custard, prepare to be
further discomforted and amused. The second series of
Australia, You're Standing In It goes to air this month.
Those given to outrage should also be sharpening their pens.
During the last series complaints flooded in every time
AYSII lampooned God or the Queen. "Those who love the
Queen are really devoted," says Steve Blackburn (alias
Tim and Wayne Dodgy to the AYSII cognoscenti) who with
Mary Kenneally (Debbie), Rod Quantock, and Geoff Brookes (Arthur
Dodgy) writes and performs the scripts. "As for God," says
Brookes, "the complaints flew so thick and fast we had to get up
a standard letter --- something along the lines of 'Our God is not
the one you're thinking of. How do you spell yours?'"
Was there such a letter or is it just another joke,
like most of the self-mocking patter that flies about the
AYSII office? Take as an example this potted version
of the group's history, according to Steve Blackburn.
"We all started off doing archi reviews at Melbourne Uni.
Then we went to the Flying Trapeze theatre restaurant and established
that sort of thing as the most popular entertainment genre.
In fact, we put theatre restaurants on the map.
Yes, I'd say we established comedy in Melbourne, which is
to say Australia, and then went on to conquer television.
Of course, we've done that and now we'd like to trample over
it a few times."
There is some truth in this, despite the outrageous hyperbole.
And the strangest thing of all is that, as the ABC discovered,
the AYSII brand of humour is what makes
Australia laugh. Strange because AYSII 's roots are
indeed deep within the Fitzroy theatre restaurant world, itself
a sub-culture within the sub-culture that is inner suburban
Melbourne. Strange also because the only steady work enjoyed
by the AYSII actor-writers these past five years has
been in their yet-to-make-a-profit theatre restaurant the
In fact, the least improbable aspect of AYSII 's success is
that it was guided into being by a fairy godperson. All agree that
nothing would have happened but for the persistence of the ABC
producer-director Noel Price. In the late seventies he was producing
language programmes for children in the ABC's education department using
actors from the Australian Performing Group and theatre restaurant
scene to impart what were rather abstract ideas through comedy.
The programmes were Magic Bag and Words Fail Me ,
and they were so successful with both children and adults that
Price suggested an evening comedy programme to the ABC hierarchy.
Four years, and two pilots later, the eventual result was
AYSII , but without Noel Price who in the meantime had
been reefed back to ABC drama. Yes, he was disappointed, but the
main thing, he says now, was to achieve a breakthrough because
you only get good at comedy by doing it. And by doing it, says
Price, the ABC now has the potential to become as good at comedy
as the BBC became in the sixties.
As for the AYSII group, having made it on television,
they are now destined for greater things. Video and records
of AYSII , a Tim and Debbie book, but most desirably
a film, are all plans in progress following this series. The
group now has a solicitor and a professional manager, Glen
Wheatley, and sounds as if it has a firm grip on the future.
From the less-than-wonderful timeslot of 9pm on
Wednesdays, commencing last September, they were launched
into what Quantock describes as "mild fame". "It was very
hard to come to grips with. We went from being quiet little
Fitzroy people to being interesting people capable of earning
lots of dodgy people heaps of money."
"An amusing and delicious joy" is how Mary Kenneally
describes people's sudden and positive change in attitude
Tim and Debbie could have toured Australia
five or six times saying "it's amazing" at everything from
Darwin camel races to the Hay annual show. Offers of television
and radio commercials flooded in and, when the answer was no,
advertising agencies went ahead anyway using Tim and Debbie
impersonators. Mary/Debbie was even asked to launch a book
on pornography. In other words, they could have cleaned up
financially after the 1983 series, and did not. Nor are they
particularly interested in courting publicity, having spurned
fat fees for appearances on television shows they do not like.
Yet they allege that the unprofitable Comedy Cafe will
have to be sold come Christmas, and the four work from a
ratty flat in North Carlton decorated in early seventies
opportunity shop squalor. One suspects that they live in
not much cosier surroundings.
It is this sort of consistency and integrity that
possibly accounts for their appeal, based as it seems to
be on humour that is a bit sick and aimed at a minority.
The minority are like-thinking people, a few who can
recognise and laugh at themselves, but probably not the
masses from whom the group derives inspiration.
Talk-back radio is a must for research, and this series
has given birth to the right wing character Rump.
Geoff Brookes who plays him can recall the programme in
which he germinated: "It was on 3LO and people were ringing
in about a proposal to shift lamp posts off the streets.
The first five callers all said that if the poles went
there'd be nothing to prevent bad drivers and drunks
running into their houses. In other words, blow the fact
that the poles are a hazard to life and limb -- worry
about what's yours."
"Rump," explains Blackburn, "is the voice of
bigotry crying in the masses." His logic is just as
confused of that of Tim and Debbie who are back again,
nattering away, qualifying anything that smacks of an
opinion and generally sounding exactly like the people
who run community and student radio in Melbourne. For
Mary Kenneally these radio programmes are "classic
crazy stuff" and obviously a well-researched source.
The group can and does sit around for hours
analysing what makes Tim and Debbie tick, what suburb
Rump lives in and how he is likely to decorate his den.
They did just that for six months before this series went
into production in June.
Other characters they have produced include an
Australian Jewess called Rachael. There is a spoof on
the Four and Twenty Hot Stuff ads called Hot Yak Fat,
and Bob Hawke might be cringing, says Blackburn:
"And so might we."
Evelyn Krape and Sue Ingelton are back, and
this time round the AYSII cast is joined by
Peter Browne, replacing Tim Robertson. Browne is
from the Murray River Review , has appeared in
several well-known commercials, and can neither sing, nor
dance, all of which qualifies him for AYSII ,
according to its four actor-writers.
Quantock and Kenneally, who are married and have a
seven-year-old daughter, have been working with
Steve Blackburn and Geoff Brookes for about ten years.
They all get paid the same and it is not a co-operative ---
"just a sort of assumption that we work together," says
Quantock. A fair bit of compromising goes on, he says,
because they never argue.
As for the comedy, it is agreed that all are
quite serious about making people question everything from
image-making to jingoism and politics. "And we like
tipping buckets, but not in a heavy way," adds Blackburn.
"That is, we're not destructive." Basically they want
to do things which are useful, says Kenneally. "Not
just funny but pertinent. Being funny is actually the
hard part. It's much easier being socially relevant."
As the producer-director of this series, Chris Noble
is discovering that comedy is, as they often say, a very
serious business. It is the first time he has directed
comedy and for him the biggest problem is working with
people who both write and perform their own material.
While Quantock laments the loss of control he and the
others enjoyed at the Comedy Cafe where they produced,
directed, wrote, and starred in their own show, Noble
has to contend with performers who are forever changing
and polishing their scripts.
Then there is the ultimate chore of deciding what is
funny and making it work. "Of about 60 scripts submitted
I'd say 15 to 20 don't make it beyond a third re-write,"
says Noble. "If the writers believe in something, they'll
have another go, but it's hard not to impose my own
sense of humour. "I've had arguments with Steve and Mary
about scripts which only a small number of people are
likely to grasp. Yet even then it's worth it, according
to them. I guess in the end, everything this group writes
is more than just funny. Most of the sketches have a
message, so they work on several levels, and even by
missing the point, people are generally entertained."
So while the director agonises, Rod Quantock says
he feels like a gunslinger waiting for this series
to go to air. "When you're unknown you can go along
happily believing you're the best in the world. But once
you get into areas where the public gaze is on you, there's
real pressure to be as good or better than last time.
It's a real concern because you don't get many chances
Given the success of this series, however, Quantock
and Co. will not hang around in television. "TV has pretty
well expressed our ideas and we look forward now to
moving on," he says. "Certainly there won't be another
series within the next few years. I feel, we all do, that
film is the next step."
But as the glib and garrulous Tim and Debbie
might observe, "Time alone will tell...".