For nearly twenty years, Ben McKenzie has done a little of everything: sketch, improv, standup, musicals, storytelling, theater, lectures, podcasts, and even late night museum tours. Ben marries comedy and science, such as his time travel comedy audio show, Night Terrace. He’s also designed and hosted dozens of live games, such as Small Time Criminals and city-wide romp Where in Melbourne is Carmen (or Diego)? He hosts the Terry Pratchett book club podcast Pratchat. Ben says that as much as he wants a performance he’s writing to be perfect by revising it over and over, it never gets to be perfect because nothing ever is, but that doesn’t matter because once it’s done and it’s out, that’s it. Ben shares about what he enjoys doing, what it means to be in the game design and comedy industry, and the value of collaboration because one-person show is not ever really a one-person show in theater.
Listen to Episode #13 here
Game Designer, Actor, Comedian, and Ginger Ben McKenzie
Our guest is comedian, actor, writer and game designer, Ben McKenzie. For nearly twenty years he’s been doing a little bit of everything: Sketch, improv, stand-up, musical storytelling, theater, lectures, podcasts and even late-night museum tours. What I like most about him is he marries comedy and science, such as his time travel comedy audio show, Night Terrace. He’s also designed and hosted dozens of live games such as Small Time Criminals and a city-wide romp Where in Melbourne is Carmen (or Diego)? He currently hosts the Terry Pratchett Book Club podcast, Pratchat. Welcome, Ben.
It’s a pleasure to be here.
Ben, if you weren’t working as a comedian, an actor, a writer or a game designer, what would you be doing?
Probably, I’d be doing one of the things I do for a job. Like a lot of freelance arts people, I have lots of different jobs but one of the things I’ve been doing more so in the last few years is doing a lot of workshops with children. A lot of it is creative writing-based but I also do workshops with teenage kids about self-esteem and stuff like that. I enjoy it. I don’t know that it’s ever a thing that I saw myself doing, but I really love it. Even if I wasn’t doing all of the comedy stuff, I would probably still be working with kids in some way. I probably would’ve found my way there one way or another.
That pays the bills?
That’s what I mostly do to pay the bills and writing. I had got my first proper video game writing gig, which was really exciting. That was great. I was paying the bills working on video games after a lot of time designing other kinds of games. I’m hoping more writing also will pay the bills but mostly writing and working with the kids in these workshops.
What does it mean to write for a video game?
Sometimes depending on the size of the project, it might be broken up into a few different roles. I’m working with a fairly small company called Tin Man Games here in Melbourne. They’re great but it’s a fairly small team. In terms of dedicated writers, that was pretty much just me for most of the project. I also filled in what might be a separate role on some larger projects like a narrative design, as well as writing the dialogue for the script. I’m also storyboarding it in a sense, not visually, but in terms of plotting out what is going to happen. It’s a video game, so it’s a branching narrative.
It’s not a single story that goes from A to B to C to D and then it’s over. It’s got different directions it can go in. You have to think about different conditions that the story might be in at any point. There’s a lot of that kind of design. I also got to do things like design the personalities of the characters, like what were their names going to be, who are they, who are they going to meet, what are their backstories, all that stuff. It was great. It was something I felt very prepared for having played and designed a lot of other kinds of games. It was really exciting.
How do you storyboard a branching narrative?
It looks an old school flow chart when I do it. There are lots of different ways to do it and I have some friends who teach this stuff and they’re amazing at it. One of my jobs is at a creative writing center for children. This is one of the workshops I do with kids and one of the best workshops we do there at 100 Story Building is about choose your own adventure style stories. It’s very similar to that. You start with one beginning usually. Sometimes games can have more than one beginning depending on what choices you get when you start, but then you take it in different directions. In a normal storyboard, if you’ve ever seen pictures of a storyboard or an animatic from a DVD special features or something like that, it’s a series of static or slightly animated sketches saying, “We want this scene to look like this.” They’re based on the script. They refer to what scenes they are in the script and what’s happening.
In a game, if you’re going to do a branching narrative, the simplest version is to choose your own adventure. As you get to a certain point, there are maybe two or three places where it could go next. This game is like a lot of video games in that it’s not quite that straightforward, but it’s pretty close. Like a lot of video games, this one’s a bit more complicated than that. There are multiple points where you can decide to go in different sections. You can play different parts of the game in different orders, as well as the big branches. We connect these boxes where you draw a scene and say, “This is what’s going to happen.” You also need to make a few notes about if they come to place A first, that’s great, and then they go to place B and that means they already know these things. If they go to place B first and then they go to place A, where you’re going, “I haven’t seen these things yet, but I’ve seen these other things first.” You need to fill that.
It’s like if-then statements.
It’s very simple, like Boolean logic for the most part. That’s what it boils down to. I studied a little computer programming when I was in high school and in university. Basically, all computer programming boils down to very simple if-then statements, if you take it far enough.
Boolean variables are named after George Boole. George Boole invented this idea of Logical Algebra. Normally Algebra is like, “This letter means this number,” but he invented logical Algebra, which is just all of the variables are true or false. Then there are operators for them, which are basically ands and ors that gets further boiled down in computer science to only two or three options because you can build all the other ones out of those.
And/or, but there has to be something else.
There’s and/or not nor. The basic building blocks are and and not. True is equivalent to equals or is. You might say, “Variable A,” and you don’t need to say it’s true but you can if you want a long hand it, then do this or do this.
I remember coming across this stuff like with certain library database and stuff like that.
One of my first jobs in university was teaching these free workshops to students about how to use the internet. This is in the like late ‘90s. I will be teaching them how to use three different search engines because we didn’t know that they will end up only being one that most people that most would use.
I always liked AltaVista. I felt that was a pretty strong Search engine.
The weirdest part is I remember at the time, I was teaching them about there are two kinds of search engines. There’s like an Index and a Web Crawler and then there are other terms for these. Basically, one was hand categorized by humans and that’s something like old school Yahoo was like this. Basically, they collected all these web page links and then human beings would go, “This webpage is an entertainment one.” They didn’t have enough computers to do it automatically. Then you had other ones which was you just searched for a word and it told you what websites had that word or term.
People used to write that word 97 times at the bottom of their page to help with the search rate.
They do all kinds of crazy stuff to get people to find their websites. I remember the first time I tried to use a website. There wasn’t any search engine. You had to have the address of the web page that you wanted to visit. I told them about those two different kinds and then I told them that there’s this new one that seems to be getting popular. It’s a mix of both, which is Google. You can use that if you want, but if you don’t know what specific site or specific thing you want, but you know the thing you want, you can go to Yahoo or whatever the other one was. If you want to ask a specific question or you’re just searching for something, you can use this one and that one in Google gives you results that are a mix of the both, which it did at the time. These days, it’s Google. The algorithm is a mystery.
I have an idea I’ve been working in about editing in various different papers. This idea of reordering and revising. There must be a lot of editing that’s happening at different stages of a video game.
I love a good collaborative process. It’s my favorite way to make art or anything with other people. This was collaborative because I would be doing narrative design, character design, story design that will go back and forth with the level designers. I would say, “This is going to happen on Mars with dinosaurs in a big red crater. There’s a crashed spaceship that’s huge and there’s a busted open door and that’s where the dinosaurs came out. Most of the dinosaurs are T-Rexes, but the best one is a stegosaurus,” because that’s my favorite.” They chose to go the wrong way from them and they’d be like, “Okay, great.” Then they come back to me and I go, “All right.”
It turns out in the way that we’re doing in the game, we can’t make a deep enough crater because you have to look at it in 360 degrees and the walls would’ve to all be down. It’s too for our budget and our time. How about instead of making it in a crater, we do it like a flat surface and there are some mountains in the background? We can do that.” I’d be like, okay, that’s fine. I’ll rewrite it a bit. They might come to me and say, “There’s a problem. We can’t have more than six dinosaurs and you have asked for twenty.” I’m like, “Let me see what I can do it and I’ll solve that problem.” They’re like, “The dinosaurs can’t be bigger than this because of some limitations of whatever.” It sounds like they’re always coming back to me with problems.
I prefer to call them constraints.
Constraints make for better art. Often, they would also come back to me and say, “We think maybe it will be better if we do it like this.” The people that I’m working with, they’re very experienced video game makers because they know what they’re doing. They never came to me with an idea where I didn’t go, “This is great. Let’s do that.” They never asked me to cut or take out anything that I really love. That’s probably not quite true but a couple of times, but it’s important to be able to recognize sometimes you’ve got to let a few things go and it will make their final thing better and also done. That’s the other thing.
One of the benefits of doing something raw, and this is one of the things I love about improvisation is it’s done. It’s out there, you do it the first time and that’s what the audience gets. There’s an understanding and an improvised performance, whether it’s music or jazz or some other intro music or whether it’s comedy or anything. There’s an understanding from the audience that that’s what’s happening. The people that they are watching are very skilled but that this is the first time they are doing the thing they’re doing, and it will never be done again. That’s part of the thrill. You don’t worry if it’s a bit rough around the edges or maybe it doesn’t stand-up to scrutiny when you think about it later.
That doesn’t matter because it’s of the moment but it’s done and it’s out there. Once you start doing something that needs to be edited and refined, you can get lost in that process. I’ve had games mostly of my own, this is an area where I’ve stumbled on this block where I have written like a draft of something and then I have gone out, “It’s not ready. It’s not quite right.” Then I’ll edit it again. I want it to be perfect and I’m going to keep revising it until it is, it never gets to be perfect because nothing ever isn’t. It never gets to a finished stage where it’s out.
[Tweet “One of the benefits of doing something raw is it’s done. It’s out there, you do it the first time and that’s what the audience gets.”]
I’ve heard people use this term, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” I do agree with you. Improv, the audience is forgiving.
I’d say receptive. They are also forgiving. That’s true.
Also, it’s moving. They’re not going to forget bad upon bad scenes, but if you stumbled a little bit, that’s fine. How late in the video game process is cutting happening? I’ve noticed in my research there are a lot of complaints, “The games are too long. People never finish. The finishing rates are very low.” I use this term undercut. Folks haven’t trimmed enough for the fat. What’s your thoughts on that?
There’s been some interesting writing about this. A video game designer I know, Morgan Jaffit, wrote a long piece about this but the audiences tend to complain a lot about video games no matter what you do. It’s not the whole audience but there’s a certain segment of that audience. This is true in other nerd circles as well, is where there’s this group who consider themselves the arbiters of what is good and bad in video games. These are the people who feel that way about other things like science fiction and comics and stuff. They’re mostly younger white dudes.
They become gatekeepers of those areas. They want to be seen as the people who are the most knowledgeable and the best at those things. They complain a lot because that’s their way of controlling what’s happening. They generally would not be the people complaining that the games are too long. I think they would probably complain if they were too short, but I understand that. I’m replaying Skyrim at the moment. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which is a one of those massive games with this huge, very detailed world that you can explore all over the place. You can play it from literally hundreds of hours and not run out of things to do.
Is that way you’re replaying it because there’s stuff you haven’t seen?
I started playing it and then a newer version came out. I resisted getting the remastered version with a prettier graphics for a long time. You couldn’t transfer your saved game from the old one to the new one on the console, which is where I’m playing it in Xbox. Having worked in the industry now, I get it because every extra thing you have to do is extra work and they would have had to program in and we had figure it out, we’ve revised the whole way the system works to make it more efficient and so that it can store more information. It’s not quite compatible with the old one, but we didn’t think that will be a problem.
We can write a tool on PC to export it because we just keep that as a job to do with someone. It’s separate. It doesn’t have to be in the game, it won’t screw anything up, but on console, you’d have to build it into one game or the other, so they didn’t do it. I think that’s fine. I think most people don’t care, but I resisted it because I was like, “I never finish that game and I would like to finish it with that character,” and then going on sale. It had been out for a couple of years and it was really cheap. I’ll buy it. I partly bought it for my housemate because he had expressed a desire to play it again and then he moved out. I thought, “I better player it,” and I love it. It’s huge. We have gone the opposite way. This game that I’ve been working on is a virtual reality game. They tend to be very short by comparison to other games.
Just because of the technology.
You can’t spend too long in VR, even as the technology gets better, until there’s some like Black Mirror style implant. It’s an implant that goes into your brain. It will never be good enough that your brain won’t know it’s not real on some level. It’s difficult and tiring to play it for too long. For some people, it’s very tiring for them even very short periods of time. There’s some interesting research that suggested that when, particularly the earlier VR technologies were designed with the usual bias of the video game and entertainment industry, which is that they just thought about the audience has been men, which was incorrect.
Nearly 50% of people who play video games are women, but they just tested it on dudes and there was some weird thing where there was something where it was more likely for women to experience that made, particularly the earlier VR headsets, very uncomfortable for them. They’ve done work to address now. I certainly don’t hear about it as much but the technology is still fairly new. I think it’s an interesting time for VR too because we just don’t know at this stage if it’s going to stick around and become something great and everybody’s going to want it or if it’s going to be like 3D TVs. It’s going to be great for a few years and then people are going to go, “It’s not that great.” We don’t know which way it’s going to go. It’s going to last a few more years. There’s still a lot more interesting things that can be done in VR.
I want to go back to this idea of collaboration. You talked about how you prefer that. You feel that good art comes from collaboration. That flies in the face of the artistic genius floats around out there, which I think was largely a myth. Even the people who are singular geniuses are influenced greatly by others. You think about French impressionist artists. All those guys were hanging on the same cafes and stuff like that. It wasn’t like they were just sitting alone figuring this stuff out was.
They might use is the word collegiate or something. They weren’t necessarily working on the same art together, but they were mingling, and they were exchanging ideas and tips and tricks.
Seeing each other’s work and being influenced by it. This is a total random story, but I liked it because if you know the artists, you can see how it’s connected. A ‘70s band, Sly and the Family Stone, a fantastic funk rock band, super cutting edge. One of the first mixed race bands and makes gender different people singing and the music is fantastic.
I haven’t listened to it enough, but I’ve listened enough to know that they’re amazing.
There’s a story about Stevie Wonder going to one of their concerts and being blown away by this band. So much so that he wrote Superstition, one of his biggest hits, which is a much funkier Stevie Wonder song and probably one of his best songs. It’s a brilliant song and it’s a toned-down version of Fly and the Family Stone. It’s fun because if you know Stevie Wonder, you hear his love ballads and then all of a sudden, you get this super funky song. It’s so different for him. Those things are happening. Tell me a little bit more about how you cultivate these collaborative relationships, these collegiate relationships and so on.
I like to work in direct collaboration, which is where you have multiple people working on the same project. It comes from one of my earliest comedy experiences. One of the first comedy things I ever did was a comedy review at the University of Melbourne when I was a student here. I’ve come back to this campus a surprising number of times for someone who didn’t even graduate from there. I feel like I’ve gotten something out of it. I had such good time here. It has changed a lot since I was here. Back then, we had the comedy review and I was in the comedy review in about 1999. I worked with a great bunch of folks. We had a director and a script editor and there were six of us in the cast, so there was eight of us working together. It was entirely collaborative.
We would do improvisation during rehearsals to generate ideas and then whoever was the main instigator of a particular idea would be sent away to write a script. They had come back. We try performing their script and the director, Scott Gooding and the script editor. They would identify what that sketch was most lacking. They would pick the person in the cast who was best at that thing and give it to them and say, “Do a rewrite.” That would happen and the script would come back and it was your script that had been sent with someone else to get that rewrite, it would come back and was like this magical process where this thing that you created, it is now better.
That assumes a bunch of things. It assumes competence on the rewriter. It assumes an ability to kill your darlings.
We had problems with that. We were all very young comedians, we were all nineteen or twenty years old, maybe 21 I think the oldest cast member. It was a great comedy at the end. A few of us stayed in comedy, not all of us but like Yianni Agisilaou who’s now a big stand-up in the UK, Lance Long was in the cast for that who’s done lots of TV and still a great stand-up comedian as well. We stuck with it. There was an audition process to get into it, so it wasn’t like, “We’ll just pick six people and we’ll go with it.” We had to be good performers and we also during the audition process, perform something we had written or improvised ourselves to show that we had some chops.
By picking the skills that we each had that were our best. I had a problem with a couple of scripts that I wrote. I used quite flowery unnatural language, which I don’t have a problem with that anymore. I remember there was one sketch where there were friends in a pub and one of them was recounting a story. It was about how they were playing pool and he was going to get seven balls and he was going to have to run around the table with his pants around his ankles. He said something like, “Pants down and thrice around the table.” Scott said, “No one would say it thrice. Nobody says that. It’s not Dickensian in England.
I like to write whilst sometimes in emails.
You’ve got to have a good excuse to use it. One of the things it taught me, you’ve got to be very precise in your selection of language. You don’t just pick words because you think they sound nice. They have to have a purpose and a meaning beyond just the meaning that they convey. This is very true in theater and in prose writing and everything. Particularly in English. I’m sure it’s true in other languages too but in English, we can say the same thing in about 100 different ways.
Australians have even more words to choose from.
We turn the ordinary words into other words. We just shorten them or lengthen them, make ones up. It’s great.
You can use words in more ways.
I believe that but people are very creative. I love this about online language that has evolved separately to in-person language and it’s relatively recent like the last five to ten years that that language has started to get used in the real world. When it started out like on IRC channels, old school chat rooms, you would never say LOL in real life. That stuff was much older than text messaging amongst teenagers. That’s from the ‘70s. You would never say LOL in person to another person.
I knew that this was happening when my 50-year-old plus finance professor next door neighbor writes BRB on a post-it note during his office hours.
That’s from IRC originally, BRB, LOL, ROFL, rolling on the floor laughing. A lot of the ones that people think, “It’s the kids in their text speak.”
What about SMH?
SMH is more recently. I do love that.
We are living in judgier times.
It’s become very necessary in the modern world. SMDH, if you want to add an extra emphasis.
I don’t even know what that means
The D is for Damn. Shaking my damn head. One of my favorite ones to use is ZOMG because I don’t think anybody knows what the Z is for. I used to think it meant zombies because it’s like, “OMG, oh my god.” Zombies are a slightly more playful but more intense version. I used to think it was like, “Zombies, oh my God,” but I don’t think that makes any sense but it has a nice sound to it. I love it. I use that quite a bit.
I’m fine with using all those things. You know what I don’t use very much? Emojis.
You’re not a fan?
It’s not that I’m not a fan. I just feel like sometimes I’m too much of a grown up yet I see why they’re useful. I study emotions, so I know the value of expressing emotions.
Is that the best way to express an emotion?
Via text message?
From IRC is where the little emoticons that were made of texts started. A colon and a parenthesis for a little smiley face. My favorite one’s the winking smile. The semicolon and a parenthesis. I used that a lot. It got me into trouble a couple times in the emails, but I still do the old school old fashioned ones, but I like Emojis. They don’t necessarily have a lot of nuance unless you are using them in a sophisticated way and some people do. There’s a great comedian, Laura Davis, who’s based here in Melbourne, wonderful stuff that she does. She had a side project, which was a separate Twitter account where she would tell stories using only Emoji. It was great. I love that account. It’s very clever. It’s funny.
Talk about constraints.
That’s a constraint on storytelling. You can only use pictures from this limited set. Anybody can add a new emoji. You can apply to have one. You can write up a proposal, you go to the standards committee that runs it, and you present your case. It has to go through a fair few pit stops along the way and they don’t want to put ones in there that are too niche. They’ve got to have relatively broad use. I’ve seriously considered trying to get stegosaurus put in there because there are no dinosaur ones, but there’s only T-Rex and a brachiosaurus. It’s a generic pod. You can’t tell which one it is. I unabashedly still love dinosaurs. I don’t think I ever stopped and I never will. They’re so great. Stegosaurus is my favorite. I want to get a stegosaurus in there because I feel like it has a specific meaning because it’s such a specific dinosaur, but also everybody knows what it is.
[Tweet “From IRC is where the little emoticons that were made of texts started.”]
Which one is the stegosaurus?
My last solo show, I wrote a poem about the stegosaurus. That’s how much I love stegosaurus. Stegosaurus has very distinctive silhouette, which is why one of the reasons why it’s my favorite. It has a very small head. It’s got smaller front legs, bigger back legs. It’s got the big pentagonal plates on its back, the thagomizer, to use the term that Gary Larson coined. It’s the spikes on its tail.
I had a plastic one of those when I was a kid.
Some people collect things and you might have an artist who’s got a little cabinet full of various different kinds of pink statue.
Tchotchkes or bric-a-brac or knickknacks.
I accidentally started a collection of stegosaurus. It’s not very big, but it happened because I happened to tell my partner at the time, this is many years ago now, how much I loved them. She found a tiny little metal one somewhere. I don’t even remember where she found it and she stole it and gave it to me. It was a beautiful model one. That kicked it off and then a few other people gave me them and then I would go to places. If I was in a museum and they had an interesting one, I’d buy it. I don’t have that many. It’s like fifteen. It’s not a massive collection and I’ve stopped adding to it now. I had another partner, she said it was a joke birthday present. She bought me one of those little “Baby on Board” signs for the car. It was like that except it was blue and it had pictures of stegosauruses and it said, “Stegosaurus Sanctuary.” She said it was a joke present. I was like, “No, this is the best.” I stuck it on the door of my room. I had it there for years. I love that sign. It was great.
That’s a good joke gift that backfires in a good way. What are you best at? You do lots of things.
It’s much easier for me to answer the question with what I’m worst at. In comedy terms, it’s probably stand-up. I’ve done a fair bit, but I’m in awe with people who are good at stand-up. Stand-up is much more difficult than a lot of people give it credit for. If you’re a really famous stand-up, if you’re up in the ranks of even people that I don’t necessarily like the work of, not that that’s necessarily the people I’m about to mention, but they’re huge. People who have massive audiences, some of those people I liked their work. Some of them I’m like, “I could really take a leave this stuff. It’s not my cup of tea,” because comedy is intensely personal. I can think of all of the art forms, comedy is not the most subjective, but it has the ficklest in terms of whether you like it or not.
It’s easy to make art that broadly accomplishes its goal to people in awe, make them see something beautiful, make them cry, make them happy, but it’s hard to make a broad group of people laugh.
That’s such a skill. I look at someone like Justin Hamilton, who does that with a massive audience, and I’m like, “The guy’s a genius.” I am not that good at that. I’ve written a few things that I think worked well.
What’s your best stand-up joke?
The best one I always come back to, and it’s not a short one because I’m not good at short jokes. I’s a dinosaur joke. Everybody loves dinosaurs when they’re ten years old. It’s like a switch on your brain. You love dinosaurs. If you think about it, dinosaurs are to ten-year-olds, what attractive people are to fifteen-year-olds because you’re thinking about them all the time. You probably covered your walls and pictures of them. You’d really like to touch one, but you’re afraid of what might happen if you did. You have these dreams where you’re riding around on their back. That’s probably the favorite actual straight joke that I’ve ever written in terms of when you can deliver a stand-up. That’s from one of my earliest shows.
I don’t think I’ve ever written a better joke. I’ve said things off the cuff and this was the last solo show I did. I recorded it most nights. A lot of comedians do this, but I hadn’t done it before because it evolves. It changes. Most people don’t script a comedy show. I used to because my background was theater, so I was used to learning a script and doing it the same every night. There’s a bit of variance there, but that’s what I was used to. If I was doing an hour-long comedy show, I’d workshop it and come up with it. The first solo show I did, I worked with a director, which is something that I don’t think enough comedians do. More of them do now.
I’ve ever heard of that.
It’s still not a thing that most comedians do, but it’s more popular now.
This is you in a collaboration.
I feel like on the outside, I can only make it work better. If the only person who ever says yes or no to or work is the one person you only ever have one idea of whether it’s good or not. It’s got to be someone that you trust. Someone who has a similar but not identical sensibility to you because if they’re too different to you, it can pull the work in different directions. It’s going to end up somewhere where it doesn’t quite fit. Some of the best shows I’ve seen, they definitely worked with a director and conversely, I’ve seen some shows that I thought were good, but I also was like, “You didn’t have a director because I would tell you to not.” It’s something I’ve got an interest in doing. I’d love to direct more comedy. I’ve only directed a little. Sometimes you just need someone to say, “This is great, but that little bit that you did there, don’t do that. It totally undercuts what you did for the five minutes before.
This bit that you did it over here, that callback comes five minutes too soon. The audience is expecting it still. Move to this bit.” It’s like structural stuff that’s very difficult to do on your own. That’s editing. All comedians edit, even stand-up, but they’re doing it in their head and some of them are doing it without thinking of it as a formal process. Most people probably don’t think of it as a formal process. You just do it each night and you try something a little different or you just do something a little differently because you remember the jokes in a different order. That’s very a common. It happens all the time. What’s better when this one was after that one or five minutes later? I love all that stuff and the mechanics of how it works and working with someone else means it gives you someone to talk to about that.
I know comedians are always doing this. They’re just talking to their mates after the show over beers and getting informal feedback, “I like it when you do this. Have you thought about punch ups?”
I like the director relationship because it does two things for me, particularly because I came from a theater background. I was used to having technical discussions about that. Not like, “Did you like this better?” or whatever, but just like going, “Maybe move this or try something different there or why did you do that?” Having a formalized relationship where you are expecting to interrogate it and someone else has the degree of ownership and buy-in I think is good. I like being on both sides of that relationship.
Tell me a little bit more about this. It’s is fascinating. Say I’m a stand-up comedian. I’ve got to show, especially the longer show. I’m going to be doing the Melbourne International Comedy Festival or something big.
It’s going to be an hour. You’re going to be in a room and there’s going to be an audience.
30 nights, the whole thing. I want a director. I hire this person?
I haven’t done it formally, so I don’t know what the usual is. You can hire someone to be a director. Unlike in theater where a director will often be the first person hired because they’ll be part of the casting process for a theater show. For a comedy show, the director usually comes in a lot later in the piece because the comedian won’t be ready until quite late. This is something else that coming from a theater background, when I discovered how close to the festival starting most of my comedian friends, were still working on and finishing their shows. I was horrified. I was like, “Haven’t you been rehearsing it for three weeks by now?” It wasn’t until my last solo show that I had an experience like that. That was partly because I knew what I wanted that show to be, but I couldn’t break the spine of it, so to speak, and get it working. I didn’t work with a director on that show in the end. I just did it by myself and it ended up being like a lot of smaller chunks.
Break the spine?
It sounds terrible and I don’t know if that’s the usual term that people use, but it’s more from publishing. It’s like when you’re first writing a book. I might have this idiom all wrong and I fully own that if I do, but I picked this up from Writing Circles. It means like you’ve cracked it, like you’ve worked it out. You’ve had some big problem that’s like been preventing you from getting to where you want to go and now you’ve broken that problem. They call it the spine because it’s like the central thing that runs through the whole story or the comedy show. Often, you’ll get a director into fairly late in the process, but what they’ll do is they’ll start rehearsing with you. I’ve worked as a director on a couple of smaller shows. I directed more cabaret than straight up stand-up, but it’s a very similar process.
You sit down with someone and you watch the show and you make a lot of notes and then you sit down with them afterwards and be like, “This was great.” I’m very careful to always give positive feedback as well as it’s very easy to just go through and tell someone all the things you think they should do differently. It’s also important to reinforce the things that really work, particularly when they look like they might have been accidental or just a little bit new because then anyone can say, “Keep that. That was great. That was amazing.” It gives them feedback and usually when I’ve done this, I’ve come in and done it in varying amount of times, anywhere from like once. That’s often when you’re an outside eye, which is a term used in theater circles. It means something different.
You’re not a director but often, you can have an outside eye on a project that does have a director. You’d be like, “We want to get somebody else in to give us another opinion before we show it to an audience.” Get some notes from somebody else. Comedians do that even when they’re not formally working with the director. It’s a pretty simple process really. If you’re awarded a Moosehead, which is like a grant for new shows in the comedy festival, one of the things they do is set you up with the director. Those shows are meant to be a bit more, not necessarily experimental, but a bit different than like something that’s a bit nontraditional. It pushes the boundaries of what comedy is and where it can go. Having a director on a project like that is particularly important.
What are you reading, watching or listening to? Playing, I could add to that, that’s good, that stands out to you?
The big one to me is The Good Place, the TV show. I discovered long ago film is not my preferred medium for screen stuff. I’m a big TV guy. I like episodic things and The Good Place I love for so many reasons. So many good performances, very funny, fascinating premise. If you’re not familiar with it, a woman appears in this weird place and she’s like, “What am I doing here?”
She’s accidentally in heaven.
She said, “I’m not supposed to be here. They think I’m someone else with the same name.” Then her soulmate that she’s matched up is an ethics professor he’s like, “The thing I have to do is to teach you to be good, so you can earn your place here.” Then it goes from there. The best thing about it is it’s unlike your traditional sitcom, where the sit, which is short for situation, never changes. That’s the whole purpose of the sitcom. You have a set premise. Which is a great example because Ted Danson is in The Good Place and he is wonderful in it. The whole cast is wonderful. It’s hilarious. It’s very clever. They talk about real ethics all the time, like ethical philosophy. It’s amazing. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s such a weird premise and they’ve taken it in directions where you’re not sure what’s going to happen next. That’s so rare in a sitcom particularly. It’s also just joyful, like bad things happen to the main characters, but it’s pleasant, it’s not nasty.
It’s film pleasantly too. It’s colorful and crisp. It’s heavenly in that way and a female lead, which was nice.
I love Kristen Bell. I was big Veronica Mars fan and she’s wonderful. I’m enjoying seeing her in a new show. That’s the big one for me. I’m rereading a lot of Terry Pratchett for my podcast, some of which I haven’t read for twenty years and that’s a real delight to go back and read that.
[Tweet “A one-person show is not ever really a one-person show in theater.”]
I ask that question all the time and there’s a lot to learn. You realize how much great content there is out there, and not just good content because there’s tons of good content, but what’s great. I also think you learned a little bit about the person. I’m surprised to hear The Good Place per se, but I’m not exactly surprised to hear something that’s upbeat. You strike me as a happy guy. You’re a professional. I can tell that you have theater training. Theater folks are very high on the professionality dimension.
I guess that’s why I like collaboration. It also teaches you to be collaborative. Like video games or film production or TV production. It must be collaborative. You cannot make theater on your own. You can try but it won’t be very good. A one-person show is not ever really a one-person show in theater. Even if they wrote and directed themselves, there still has to be somebody else turning on the lights and probably deciding when the lights turned off because the person who’s on the stage, you have to have somebody looking at it. You can’t look at it yourself. It’s very rare that it’s truly a one-person show. That teaches you to not only appreciate that but do it well.
What is the secret to success? Everybody knows it, but they just can’t seem to do it.
I do not know. You asked me, “What are you best at?” I said, “I don’t know.” I’m a good performer and oddly enough, I don’t do as much of it as I do other things right now. I’m very good comic actor. This is why stand-up is a second thing for me. I’m a better comic actor than I am. That’s why I find Night Terrace so satisfying because that’s what I’m doing in Night Terrace. I’m playing a character. I’m acting. As much as there are similarities between that character and myself, he’s not me and so it is a performance, and I love that. It depends how you measure success. I’m not super famous. I like to describe myself as like a Z-grade local celebrity because I’ve done enough work in Melbourne over twenty years that people do know who I am.
Mostly people in the industry, like a lot of comedians know who I am, but there’s enough people that have seen my work that occasionally people will recognize me or they’ll reach out to me on the internet to say, “I liked that thing you did.” It doesn’t happen very often, but it’s very gratifying when it does. There’s a certain level of success there, but the other thing that’s successful is my goal was always to be a performer primarily or whatever artistic thing I was going to do and have that be my whole job. That’s always been my only goal. It was about seven years ago that I quit doing a day job. Now, I pretty much do that. I have five different jobs and some of them feel little bit tangential to the core thing that I want to do, but they still have me standing up in front of people talking to them, even if it’s not necessarily in an entertainment capacity.
I am performing in one way or another. On that level, that’s a success. Maybe then the secret of success is to think carefully about what is success to you. This applies to everything in life from your career to relationships. You don’t want to just buy into whatever the mainstream idea of success is, which for the entertainment industry is your mega famous and you’re making millions of dollars. I’m like, “That’s not what it’s about. What is success actually mean to you?” For me it means that I make something good that people like, that people listen to. The third one is the hardest thing. Getting an audience is the hardest one. You can get a small audience who likes what you do, getting an audience that’s big enough to sustain you is the difficult part, but the big part of success for me is getting to do that as job professionally.
Night Terrace, I Googled it. You’re the number one hit on Google. There’s a famous Vincent Van Gogh painting called Night Terrace.
That’s its nickname. It’s called the Cafe Terrace at Night. It’s taken us a while to rise above mentions of that and I have a Google alert so that if somebody writes a review of Night Terrace, we hopefully find out. It has never reported to me about our show. It has always reported to me about Cafe Terrace at Night.
That was funny because we were talking about French painters and how that’s connected. That’s one small thing. The second small thing is your cover photo on Twitter is Sydney Road in Brunswick, which is where I’m staying. There’s a church in the background and I’m almost directly across the street from that church. This town has gotten really small really quickly.
I didn’t grow up here and I moved here for university twenty years ago. I have nearly always, with a few years exception, lived in the inner north like in Carlton or Brunswick. I’ve been in Brunswick now for about fourteen years. I love it there, which is a whole other thing to talk about because it’s changed over that time. Sydney Road is an icon. I live up the North end of Brunswick near Coburg, which is a bit different down here but I love it up there too.
For the audience who aren’t familiar with Melbourne, Sydney Road is the road if you’re going to Sydney, it does take you there. That’s not the best way to go though. Flying is the best way.
I’ve been in a car that’s driven to Sydney from Melbourne many times and it’s a fun trip. I liked the train. I love train travel and the train from Melbourne to Sydney goes through the Blue Mountains and it’s beautiful. If you’ve got the time to spare and you don’t mind paying as much to go more slowly, I recommend it. It’s beautiful.
Ben, thanks so much for doing this.
It’s a real pleasure. Thanks for having me.
- Ben McKenzie
- Tin Man Games
- 100 Story Building
- Twitter account – Laura Davis’ Emojis
- Night Terrace
About Ben McKenzie
For nearly twenty years Ben McKenzie has done a little of everything: sketch, improv, standup, musicals, storytelling, theater, lectures, podcasts and even late night museum tours. Ben marries comedy and science, such as his time travel comedy audio show Night Terrace.
He’s also designed and hosted dozens of live games, such as Small Time Criminals and city-wide romp Where in Melbourne is Carmen (or Diego)? He hosts the Terry Pratchett book club podcast Pratchat