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Brainspace: Look And Listen Article

The following article appeared on pp.8-10 of the September 1984 issue of the Australian media magazine Look and Listen . It provides some good background on the origins of Australia, You're Standing In It  (AYSII ) and Tim and Debbie.


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 Comedy Cafe.

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 to them.

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 in Australia."

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...".

From pp.8-10 of the September 1984 issue of the Australian media magazine Look and Listen  published by David Burton Publishing Pty Ltd, 14 Herbert Street, Artarmon, Sydney 2064, Australia.

Copyright © 1984, Jan McGuinness and/or David Burton Publishing Pty Ltd.

Thanks go to Brenton Hoff for drawing this article to my attention. [--------------------------------------------------------------------]
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Copyright © Ross N. Williams 1996. All rights reserved.