Laura Davis is a stand-up and comedy writer. She has won Comedy Channel Moosehead Award, Melbourne International Comedy Festival Golden Gibbo Winner, and Melbourne Fringe Best Comedy. Davis has appeared on SBS’s Stand Up shows and ABC TV. She is a writer for Shaun Micallef’s show Mad as Hell.
Listen to Episode #20 here:
Look Into The Writers’ Room with Laura Davis
Our guest is Laura Davis. She’s won the Comedy Channel Moosehead Award, Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Golden Gibbo Award and Melbourne Fringe Best Comedy. She’s appeared on stand-up shows on SBS and ABC TV and she’s a writer on Shaun Micallef’s show, Mad as Hell. Welcome, Laura.
Thank you for having me.
I appreciate you doing this. Laura, if you weren’t working as a comedian, you weren’t writing and performing stand-up, what would you be doing?
That’s always an interesting question because I feel like there are two options for the answer, which is what were you going into when you change paths and what would you probably choose now if you gave up? I feel you get the two options. When I was studying professional writing, I did want to be a writer but probably would have ended up moving into teaching English or something. I did want to be a journalist writer, but it was more of the creative elements that I was pursuing. I’m not sure I would have been happy in that.
Nowadays, there’s less money in journalism than comedy.
The degree that I was doing wasn’t particularly good either. I made a great decision in failing. Not many people can say dropping out of a degree was a great career choice, but for me, I was maybe slightly outdated.
Were they teaching you how to be a newspaper reporter?
That happens these days. These old professors, they never change their approach.
I was in a real bad degree. Now, if I’d quit, I’d probably like to go maybe study psychology and move into youth work or something afterwards. I’d probably go do that with all of my life experience to find things.
What’s the probability you will quit?
I feel like I can’t conceive of it and at the moment. I turn 30 in a few days and I’ve been performing since I was nineteen. It’s one of those blinker situations where you focus at a light at the end of the tunnel for long enough that you can. Unless it started to make me desperately unhappy or stop interestingly, then I would have to continue in some form.
You’re saying you might downshift to a hobby?
There is a wonderful thing that you can do in Australia, which is to have quite a high-profile career whilst being desperately poor. You can work as much as you want, but you won’t get paid.
I saw a tweet about some conversation talking about paying comedians. In the United States, it’s a real problem. I understand why it exists. I still don’t think it’s okay.
Why do you think it exists?
The act of practicing comedy is so closely related to the act of performing comedy that people are so desperate to practice that they’ll work for free. The willingness and also, there’s a little bit of commoditization of comedy. There’s lots of people willing to do it, especially all these guys doing the same thing.
I’m getting lost amongst them now. It feels like you’ve been deliberately snide or something to say. I can’t tell them apart sometimes.
No, I’m not lamenting. I’m not trying to be mean.
That isolates the labor issues with it. I feel there’s also a fundamental flaw in the stand-up model where compared to other art forms, if you were performing stand-up as well as you can, if you were the best stand-up comedian in the world, it should look like you were doing absolutely nothing. It should look completely effortless, like you’re having a chat with the crowd and that’s why people become even more reluctant to pay people who are professionals who have reached a certain standard of work. They don’t need to do it, but if you look like you were doing as much work as you were doing on stage while you’re on stage people would.
That’s true if you’re a jazz musician or if you’re an athlete.
People go, “I could never do that.” In stand-up, if you’re doing it as well as it can be done, everyone in the crowd should feel like they could have a crack.
We’ve all had moments in time when we’re funny, whether it be at a dinner party or something that where you’re all on and so you have those moments that exist. It’s not the labor issue. I also think that like the model of selling it, this idea of selling food and drink, you wouldn’t do this at a symphony where you come to the symphony and you have these three Martinis.
Quickly get out of there and see three symphonies that have all been made to fit under an hour and a quick symphony festival. You need to go home and think about that symphony, just one.
How are you combating this? You said you’re already feeling a little bit of commoditized.
I like to talk on stage about how hard I’m working and how good I am and how nobody would be able to do it if they try, just rub that in. I’m working around it. You can get different work on the side, start turning down work to work on other projects is something that I’ve only come to the luxury point in my career where I can do that. Before doing stand-up and practicing, it was a very important in being able to do it. Whereas I feel like not to rest on laurels, but I feel like after ten years the gaps that I can take and the things I don’t need to do seven shows very quickly, pack four into one night or something to run something in. I feel like particularly that in the smaller Australian market, you can work on stuff with a little bit more focus and time on it.
That’s come up with some of my prior guests where they say, “You have to be a little bit careful about working too much in Australia.” There are fewer audience members. They will see you and then they’ll see you again and they’ll see you doing the same stuff again and they’ll be disappointed by that.
It’s an interesting difference in Australia. One thing that calmed me down when I was getting nervous about going to Edinburgh was a friend of mine said that because Australia produces some great comedians on a worldwide level and because the industry is smaller, but the place that you hold in the industry here, whatever level you’ve reached is a way that you will slot in elsewhere. It’s a small scene, which does foster quite a high standard and so if you can do twenty minutes here, you’re not going to go to England and people go, “This is the worst twenty minutes I’ve ever seen.” Even though you’d maybe spend less time on stage, the progression is sometimes a little bit faster here because there are less foothold in the industry.
Australians are funnier. The average Australian has a lot more practice being funny in life in general and thus the comedians have a head start.
I haven’t traveled maybe enough to notice it, but it would make sense the society that we built out of prisoners in an incredibly harsh environment. It’s one of those historically a lot of the social morals and traditions slipped a bit quicker here than they would have elsewhere because you couldn’t maintain, you couldn’t get around very fancy Victorian clothes for much longer than we did here.
Comedy plays on breaking rules. I’ve experienced the same thing as doing like public academic work. I get invited to give talks and it’s very flattering, but it’s challenging given a public talk is hard in the same way that getting up and performing stand-up is difficult.
Takes you away from your family, your friends.
It’s one more thing to prep and on the scale of things that are valued by university, it’s mid to low. There are other things that are much more valued and rewarded. I’m finding myself in this interesting world where I want to say yes because I want to practice, and I believe like the stuff I have to say is important and useful, but then countered by the, “Are you going to make it worth it for me to do this?” I’m not quite there yet where I’m saying no without pay obviously academic talks, university talks, I always say yes to and they’re always pro bono, that’s the norm, but outside of that in business and so on.
That sounds very similar to the business model that we work around.
You’re a writer. I’ve always said at least when it comes to New York, LA that comedy world, that those writer gigs are the best job. One is it’s steady work. It’s stimulating work. It’s regular hours and it pays surprisingly well because often writers have good unions at least they do in the United States. The Writer’s Guild is a pretty strong union. We’re talking about showing you have value it’s not like you could call in scabs for writers. It’s a hard job. Then also the other one is that you can keep a low profile. If you want to enjoy a good life, a stimulating life, a creative life and artistic life, but you don’t want to have to deal with the fame, it seems to be a nice way to do it.
It does allow you to strike a balance too like this is a contract work for me at the moment. We do maybe two seasons a year and then three months seasons. For me, knowing that I had steady work for that three months makes me a hell of a lot more flippant with the other nine. I know that I can come, and work and I know that I am getting experience I’m building a resume and profile. I’m still gigging most nights afterwards and I’m still working on all my own projects because it is such a short-term contract work. That’s something that a lot of people can move comfortably into his writing narrative comedy or writing sketches and then you do get to enjoy a lot of the times.
[bctt tweet=”Some people go into stand-up comedy in general because they like the creative element, they like the writing.” via=”no”]
I don’t think that it is true for me. I like the live performances it’s probably my favorite part of being a stand-up is the actual live work, but some people go into stand-up comedy in general because they liked the creative element, they liked the writing. They like generating the material and then drag themselves excruciatingly the gigs completely outside of their personal comfort zone. People who don’t let public speaking and don’t want to be on stage, but they’re doing it because they feel like that’s the format that you get and then get to work creatively in, then you give people an outlet where they get to do whatever they want that they don’t have to drag themselves up on stage and about 11:00 at night.
For the audience, will you describe what a writer’s room is like? What does that seem?
There are so many different types. I’ve worked where we had a little room and you had this big with five guys in it and me. That’s about the ratio. What we did it was a very short contract. We wrote the plot line and pitch for a TV series and that was very, “We’ll go get coffee. We’ll have to think about this. Then we’ll have a chat about this. This character should do this.”
You’re writing this on whiteboards around the room and stuff.
It felt like the most stereotype of what stand-up writing is and comedy writing is in one big table and everyone seem impressed and then you get coffee thing and you do some more singing. That was probably the closest to it.
Did you like that?
I did. I enjoyed it. What I’m running at the moment is Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell. It’s political news show. There’s a few political news shows in Australia. Some others have a lot more fun in their writer’s room because we can hear them through the door. You will pass along the room and they’re laughing and dancing around. Ours seems to be by the nature of the show and the nature of the people that work on it is like I have a cubicle almost. There’s four of us, five sometimes around the corner and you’re allowed to stand-up and talk and everything. What you do is put your head down. It’s a great show. It’s a well-respected show.
What would you compare that show to for a political news show in the US, do you know?
It’s headed as a desk show, but it also involves your sketch actors. There’s a team of them. We have four key actors who play all the characters for the sketches in that Saturday Night Live style, but not quite. We’ll do a fake news show format that’s quite a common one.
The Jon Stewart’s Show or Samantha Bee will have actors out as news reporters or something like that.
You write a fake news report for somebody. You write a desk interview for somebody to come in, but we do have a stable team of four performers that can do all of the characters in different wigs and makeup and everything. It’s one of those interesting things where because the writing goes through like this interesting sausage process. It’s very writer-driven show. We write what we want, we’re not told what to write on. You might write on the same topic of somebody else and then they’d take Frankenstein of whatever, two scripts they get and then they all get tweaked maybe or rewritten a little bit by Shaun and then they go through the actors. Then at the end of product, it’s been filtered through. It’s all driven by the writers what they would like and then filtered through this moderating voice of somebody who tweaks the scripts to suit themselves. Then at the end, it’s this one nice cohesive.
It sounds like Shaun speaking instead of Laura speaking.
You write for somebody else’s voice as much as you can, but that’s what makes the show great is the fact that it does go through those sifting layers.
Back to your poor writing training. Is there anything that you learned in that in that program that helps you now as a writer?
Absolutely, even attaining a high-standard of English was incredibly useful to know how to write reports and how to write statistics up, the very basic.
They taught you to be a news thing and you’re on a fake news show.
It’s a joke thing that people talk about humanities degrees and everything, but they do teach critical thinking and they do teach bias and they do teach you different ways and the way that different technology and different media platforms affect the content of something. It’s important to have learned. That would have helped me.
You come in, you sit down in your cubicle Monday morning, you’ll get up, you’ll go to your cubicle, and you’ll sit down.
Usually I stop in for a coffee at the cafe near my house to read the newspapers before I go in and briefed on what’s happened.
What newspapers are you reading?
The ones that cafe has, The Herald Sun and The Age. It’s the Murdoch and the Fairfax.
Not the Australian?
No, they don’t buy that one. That’s the most right-wing one that we have, and it is available in all states. It’s also not a coffee shop newspaper because it’s fucking huge. It’s got this muscle that you would expect people holding extreme right-wing views to feel entitled to take up that much space in the coffee shop.
You read this stuff, you get your delicious Melbourne coffee and then you head in.
I say hello to the people that I work with and then I sit at a computer for eight to ten hours depending on how focused I am. You write a script you might send off three or four and then maybe one or two make it to record.
[bctt tweet=”If you get stuck, go back and see what else is happening.” via=”no”]
Are you working on three or four of these simultaneously or you work on them sequentially?
Depends what’s coming in. If you get stuck, you go back and look and see what else is happening. Sometimes it’s a short script, it’s a one liner on something and then other times you’re writing a full four or five-page, you break down with different scenes and different actors and costume requirements. That might take the full afternoon.
Are you trying to get this thing perfect? You send it off like the best I can do without spending two days on it?
If I could say that to him when I send off the scripts, I would feel a lot better at my job if I could hand them over while saying, “This is the best I can do.” I feel like that’s what we all like.
It could be half-flushed out.
It’s written on a weekly basis and the actors have to have their lines ahead of schedule. Everything has to be relevant so you can’t submit anything that would still require somebody to spend four hours editing it because it’s not worth the time.
As they’re done, you send them off?
Yes, you print them out and you put them in a little box.
It’s on paper?
Yes, and you email a digital copy as well. If you were editing a lot of scripts, having them printed out, and being able to scribble on them helps a bit.
Have you ever submitted something, and it doesn’t go and then you go back and go, “No, I think you’re missing an opportunity?”
No, I would never have the moxie. I don’t think anybody does. Shaun is so incredibly well-respected in the industry, so you would absolutely trust his judgment on your own shitty work. Every now and then, something wouldn’t go off and you might edit.
Do you ever get notes like, “Why didn’t you like about these?”
Very rarely. It’s one of those ones where you know what you did, or you can take it sometimes completely impersonal, somebody else might have written a better sketch on the same topic. I would say out of ten scripts that I submit, maybe one will make it to the show. Our show is a bit different in the writing room, so this is a very different model, too. It’s where it feels like it’s the fish John West rejects a situation. The advertising slogan for John West Fish in the ’90s. The slogan was, “It’s the fish that John West rejects that makes John West the Best,” that slogan. It feels like we work through a pipeline where there is more produced than we need, and they select what they want.
I know some people write on new shows where they desperately, particularly you’re doing like a daily television show and maybe you’re not doing full sketches, so that doesn’t take up the time. If you’re doing it every night, I know people work in those rooms where they’re under the pressure and have content and, “We need another twenty minutes. You need to write something on this, you need to write something in this and you need to write something on this.” It’s one of the things that makes this particular show such a luxury and lovely to write on these and then you add supplement as best you can. You get stuff up and we all feel proud because we know how hard it was to get work on it.
It has a strange parallel to stand-up in a way in the sense that you write jokes, you perform them, most of them, the audience doesn’t respond well to and then you keep the good ones without the multiple revisions and multiple testing.
After ten years, you get better at doing it on the first time. I feel that’s something that’s nice about being ten years in. Ten years is not that long in the industry which I think a lot of people don’t realize. That was one of the best pieces of advice I was given when I started was straight off the bat somebody said, “It’s a ten-year apprenticeship. Five years to find your voice and then five more to refine it.” At ten years, that’s when you can start selling the product.
I was nineteen when I heard that and that’s helped me because I was able to go, “When I am 30, I will have ten years’ experience and I’ll be able to choose what I want to do with the product that I’ve built.” One thing I’ve enjoyed after having more experience is maybe not having to try out new stuff with as much trepidation. I feel like when I’m writing notes for myself I know what will work and where it will work. It’s becoming rare that I will go and try new material and have it go after the tumbleweeds. You usually go, “That was half-finished.” I work on that and that’s been a nice development. When you start, it’s so brutal to take exactly that ten jokes up and one works and you’re like, “What was it about that one that made that one work? I want to see if I can write ten more like it and you try that and then maybe two worked.”
[bctt tweet=”To make an idea funny, you have to find the premise.” via=”no”]
Laura Davis’ jokes are so good because of the ones that she doesn’t tell. You sit down your cubicle, you’ve got these stories swirling in your head. You’ve got your blank script template, how do you do this? Do you have a trick, a strategy, some tactic, a way that you go about trying to get something that’s good?
It’s the same as you would get any idea. I feel like a lot of stand-up works on the same ground principles and there’s lots of different interpretations of them, but to make an idea funny, you have to find the premise. To find the premise, you need to exaggerate something, or you flip it or you take it down a few notches and see it’s usually very simple. Somebody saying something awful in a cavalier happy fashion or it’s somebody saying. It’s all based on juxtaposition.
Once you know what you have, you have a news article about something that’s happened in the Parliament and then you find the juxtaposition or you can find the irony in it all or you can find the hypocrisy in it or you can extrapolate it so its most ridiculous outcome when the government is knocking on everybody’s doors for this ridiculous reason.
I feel like you get into trouble across the board with comedy. Whether it’s writing for yourself on stage of somebody else. If you go around looking for what is funny, that’s where you get wanking jokes and mother-in-law jokes and you go, “What is funny?” It’s far more productive to find something that isn’t funny at all and work out what it takes to get something in that. You don’t want to joke about control and things like that. That is not funny if you are talking about, but if you can flip it and change it and find a sympathetic viewpoint.
The analogous situation. I don’t watch a lot of stand-up anymore in part because I find so much of it hacky and predictable and so on. If someone’s quite good, I’ll watch it because I know that they’re going to do something fresh. Chris Rock has a new comedy special, Tambourine, and I admittedly like Chris Rock. What I like to do is pay attention to what he’s doing, why he’s doing it and how he’s doing it. For instance, finding the thing that’s ridiculous he was talking about whenever there’s a police shooting. People say, “There are a few bad apples. It’s a few police who were doing this.” Then he does a bit about bad apples. I had a bad apple, then he goes that doesn’t exist in other important things. He talks about few pilots, there are a few bad apples. There are some jobs that you have to be perfect.
You can’t have bad apples.
It ends up being a very funny bit. It seems like that is an example. How would you describe that when you think about your technique? It seems like he is taking that to its natural end.
You can hang somebody on their own rope. If you can spot something as being an unstable position, an untenable stance to take. Then you go, “Following your logic, this is where we end up in that scene.” It’s the same as you would write an academic essay or something like that. One thing we’ve been writing a whole heap on the nation has is we have the Deputy Prime Minister, cheated on his wife. It’s all been a big mess. He’s having a child with this new partner and all of that would be fine except for about six months ago. He aggressively campaigned against same-sex marriage because it would erode normal family values and children would grow up in same-sex families and they wouldn’t have a staple house to live in. He comes out and saying things like, “It’s making me upset that my family is under scrutiny and I don’t like that my child seems to be thought of as less worthy than other children.”
They overturned a rule by going through the statistics Commission in Australia rather than the Electoral Commission. If you held the plebiscite, the postal survey for same sex marriage through the electoral roll thing, the Electoral Commission, you have laws here that say, “You don’t have to lie. You’re not allowed to presents false data.” You’re allowed to sway as much as you can, but you can’t outright lie. They deliberately chose to go through the Statistics Commission. It’s a survey now. They called it a survey, then they called it a referendum. Then people were able to publish deliberately misleading television campaigns that say, “All children who grow up in same-sex homes are more likely to suffer domestic violence or something.” That’s an outright lie, but it’s been shown at prime-time television. There’s no law against it and they knew that, and he fought to have it through.
[bctt tweet=”You’re allowed to sway as much as you can, but you can’t outright lie.” via=”no”]
On a comedy situation, it’s great. You feel a responsibility if the newspapers are choked. Particularly because of the way that they are legislating different laws for journalists, different laws for restriction of information and everything. Then it always feels like the Mary Poppins’ Spoonful of Sugar situation and this political reporting that he is like very close with comedy. John Jewett’s and all your shows that features somebody at a desk giving you the news. Much of that is a modern style of news reporting that it is a comedy program, but you wouldn’t watch Trevor Noah and think, “That’s a bit light entertainment.” It’s heavy and you’re not watching John Oliver going, “That’s a funny little take.” Many of those comes out of a team of writers going, “This is why this is fucked. This is maybe how they could fix it. This is how we make bad information palatable to a group of people watching it at home.”
I have a terrible memory, so I can’t give credit where credit’s due. In the current political climate in the United States, this rise of comics, the writer was saying the comics are great bullshit detectors. I like to say, what comics typically do is point out what’s wrong with the world. It’s very rare that a comedy bit comes from what’s right with the world. It’s very difficult to do. It’s almost impossible to do. You might use that as a technique where you take something wrong and then flip it to try to talk about how it might be right to try to create. In general, you start with what’s wrong and there isn’t this need to create some balance, for instance. If 90% of people don’t like this thing and 10% of people do, you don’t bring two people on one who likes and one who doesn’t that it makes it all seem.
It feels like if you can have a reality television star as your president and then the comedians can probably have the news. It’s that thing where people are like, “We don’t have journalists any more. You don’t have been politicians anymore. What are you meant to do with when we’re moving towards a populist society in that way? Then what hope do you have of. You can’t report on something that ridiculous, calm, non-biased way. They did some psychological surveys on comedians at one point. I don’t know the validity of the controls they used or anything, but they found that comedians were very interested in scale and status and value.
It feels like there’s a particular type of very quick analysis of looking at something and seeing where the inequality in it. I’m quite interested in power dynamics and not in a sociopathic way, but I feel like comics are very good at finding where that tension is. That bullshit detector. No, that’s not right. It’s not necessarily for me, this is a little silly. That’s actually not stable. I feel like that type of mind that is very well-applied to particularly political comedy. This doesn’t match up with that and it’s not something that you didn’t have to study. You didn’t have to go through that. The annals of information went, “That’s not what you said that because of this.”
If you’re paying attention, it’s easy to pick out inconsistencies. Politicians do this all the time where they hide their true intentions. Do you have an unpopular opinion?
It’s one of those ones again in that tension to a lot of people I’m absolutely a monster.
Then yes, you do.
Then it’s people who disagree in this. Valid at some points, but I don’t feel like I hold anything that is completely unreasonable that I had some people in my show at a festival who came in and I deliberately take a very high-status persona from the very outset of my show. As I always start on stage, I welcome people in. “Hello. Sit down. Good.” Then I start from ridiculous high-status of, “Who’s seen me before? Good. If you haven’t seen me before, don’t worry. I’m very good. I’m probably better than most of the ones you’ve seen before. Especially if you haven’t seen anything good for a while.” I do that mostly deliberately because it unsettles anybody who can’t cope with the idea of somebody who looks like me in that role.
It bubbled up very quickly where there were two couples and the guys were very uncomfortable with a young lady. You need to stop talking over the top of me. It’s not fair. There’s no special rule I’ve made up that’s enough from you. Eventually, they ended up walking out whilst coming up on stage to kick my chair, holding my water into the crowd. Hit the audience, furious. All that I had done for that show was say, “No, sorry. You’re not allowed to talk. I’m sorry. I know that you think that you can, but you can’t.” That was enough. That would be unpopular to a lot of people. The idea that persona I feel is probably my most tense.
Then you bring it down?
I’m very vulnerable and it is that juxtaposition and then finding that balance. I’m very vulnerable on stage. I talk about a lot of personal things and if I can’t balance it essentially, then I will end up looking very fragile on stage and people don’t want to see that.
People don’t want to see you working out stuff on stage, but they’re happy to have you talk about yourself on stage. There’s an interesting balance. You’re not doing therapy where you’re using them, you’re entertaining them.
I’ve joked about a mental health or about breakups or about politics or something and people don’t want to go there, but you have to take them in to do that. You need to have implied some strength. “I want to be all fun and silly and never mind, I won’t hurt you. By the way, now we go into some dark, scary territory by showing them that I’m capable and strong and in charge of the room.” Then they’re like, “I guess we’ll follow you into the abyss.” This happens quite a lot. Usually men will start talking at the start of the show over the top of me, as I said to a setup, they will try and intercept with a punch line or something and they can’t quite cope. It’s because I’ve gone very high status at the start, “We’ll see about that, love.” “I’ll ruin your whole night. You’ll never leave the house again.” You’ve made a lot of assumptions about how jolly I am.
[bctt tweet=”Focus at a light at the end of the tunnel for as long as you can.” via=”no”]
First, the heckler typically has no idea how much experience that stand-up has dealing with hecklers.
I had my favorite moment that sums that up. I did a show that’s called Marco Polo. I performed it blindfolded for several seasons. For the whole show, I don’t take the blindfold off and it’s a lot of crowd work, a lot of questions and it was sort of a dramatic device to illustrate how similar people are and that thing of not the way that people look in the fact that I was able to control a room and do crowd work whilst not me being able to see any single person. There was one guy who was heckling I shut him down and then he did what most of them do, which has come back twenty, 30 minutes later to prove that you didn’t win.
They’ll give it twenty minutes, 30 minutes, have a good old think about what they’re going to interject with next and did it again. I can’t see him at all and I haven’t looked at anybody this whole show. “Just to make sure if this is a White man in his mid to late 40s wearing a t-shirt and a shit jacket.” The whole room erupted. The floor’s like, “He is.” I’m guessing. I can hear him. He’s male. I can guess the age, I can guess the ethnicity and he is old and he is probably wearing a shit jacket. It’s a little cheating. I have dealt with you. I’ve dealt with every other version of you. You’re all the same to me. I don’t even have to look at you to know. They go, “I thought I was special.”
You were talking about if you were to leave comedy, other jobs you would do, is it that the kind of stuff that might wear on you eventually?
It’s always been one of my favorite parts. The harder parts were when I was younger and going into what were dangerous situations physically. Being in bars late at night, being in environments which aren’t safe working environments for women. It feels like the more I do it, the easier it is to deal with it and the more fun I have with that. The actual combat onstage has always been fine. I’m up for it. I feel like I’m quite good at making the point. I feel like I know strongly why people do things and I always have in life. I’ve known people’s motivations for it and so when that happens on stage, it’s the least. I know what my jokes are, I know how they go, I don’t need to hear them again. I’m pretty happy to stop and pick you apart and work out exactly why. They’re having a go at me because there’s no good reason for you to be. No one’s calling out with something great and valid for a good positive reason. If you can assess why they did that, why they chose to call out and it does show.
Does it get an audience on your side?
It certainly raises the tension.
I quite often get people to leave. I’m big kicker out of people because I feel like it’s the hallmark of me, my style, very no-nonsense. I feel I make good work. It’s a matter of respect if you are willing to sit there and listen and enjoy it, you very welcome to be and not to affect that for other people. It’s quite often I’ll give them the math of it, “I paid this much for the venue. I’m paying this much for the registration. I paid this much. Everyone in this room is paid this much. You’ve paid $21, so you feel that you’re entitled to sit there and do whatever you want, but we’ve got about $2,000 collective collateral against you.” They go, “I’ve never realized that. You can sit and be quiet or you can leave because I’m working.” This is very high status but also, I don’t loiter on it. I’m not patting myself on the back for being incredible or anything. These are the rules, this is how you would respect anybody and if you can’t do that to me, then off you go.
What are you reading, watching or listening to that’s good, that stands out to you?
I feel like I restrict a lot of media and that’s one of the weirder personality traits. I listened to a lot of classical music that I don’t know the composers of it, it plays in the background. I watch a lot of documentaries about the ocean. I feel like I’m quite sensitive to things. I find it very hard to find television programs, movies, and books even that I don’t find over-stimulating. Something I was watching with my friend is the new Queer Eye on Netflix. They’ve also pinned the Zeitgeist. It’s such an interesting unpicking of different versions of these masculinities that don’t serve people well and can cripple and cause people to struggle in their lives. Gently pick that apart and air that out a whilst being completely irreverent and the candy-coated reality television is fascinating.
There was one episode that does have the stand-up comic on it and they come in and help. It’s one of those ones where you go through and go, “That’s needed.” Men living out in the country who go home, “Ugly and no one can ever love me.” What if they did? It feels like when you’re making work, you’re trying to find that balance of tension between what you enjoy making, what people will want to watch and what is needed at the time is interesting. It’s why you get people like John Oliver and Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah coming in like that is clearly needed at the moment. The society is wanting that. I feel that’s a good example of some production company that’s hit the nail on the head of going, “People would love to watch this.”
I was fussing around on Netflix. I’m watching some of these stand-up specials. It’s interesting because I’ve been thinking about getting rid of my Netflix subscription in part because it’s overwhelming and it didn’t feel like anything that’s standing out to me that I wanted to watch. I watched a couple episodes of Queer Eye and I was struck by it, too. I was struck by it in two ways and maybe it’s reminiscent of what you said. First of all, I thought they did a very nice job of casting the subjects.
That, at first blush, there seemed like a stereotype, when you dig deeper, you find real depth in them. Then the other one is I felt like the makeover was as psychological as much as it was physical. I feel like the original show was physical, “Let’s tidy you up and send you out in the world.” This one is more like, “No, you are a good person. What is it that you want? What’s holding you back into something?”
A show that teases that out is very interesting at the moment when you do have this a culture of people wanting to be right. They’re doubling down on hotline views or they’re sort of trying to make sure that they’re on the right side of history. A show that starts to unpick that is fascinating for it to come along right now of what’s holding you back and why do you hate these people and why do you not like this.
What was holding your change back? Why are you in a place as you were ten years ago? What have you changed your mind about recently? This Queer Eye ideas is related to that.
That makes a lot of sense. We ask questions like that. I couldn’t change my mind on what I’ve changed my mind on several times on the walk here.
What are you debating then that might be another way to say it.
I’m debating is the efficiency and the use of this current call out culture. The swirling vortex of the digital left as something that is difficult at the moment. A reviewer had reviewed female acts show in Perth. It was a lovely review. She’d hedged in the review, “I know this is bad to say, but I would normally not go and see female comedians because they always talk about men hating and periods.” Then went on to say, but this act completely changed. She was great. She didn’t talk about any of that. It was one of those ones where I wrestled with is absolutely worth trying to educate. Essentially, are you allowed to walk away and let people be a bit shit? If they’re not murdering people and you go, “You’re a bit racist. You hate women.” They go, “No.”
This means so much to change these ideas and I did ended up tweeting a thorough thread where I said, “I thought you might like a handy list of all of the female acts that you’re disregarding based on their gender.” I tagged about 100 female acts straight on Perth. I didn’t want it to be like, “Fuck you.” I finished it up with what our hope was fair was, “Anyway, I don’t have time to list the hundreds of other acts you’ve disrespected, but if it’s okay actually to hold a prejudiced view, but when you’re publicly airing it in a form that is design to review female acts and affect their financial income, at least have a look. Don’t change that view.
You can keep it, but at least have a look at it. At least look at who you’re damaging when you say things like this.” I feel like that’s where I’m wrestling is trying to find that line of, “No, it’s all right for you to disagree with me, but why don’t you ever look at this. You’re allowed to say that. All these people are terrible or something that you don’t like this because of this because they’re all like this. Do you want to have a look first?”
The tough thing is this person was speaking honestly.
Not hurting anybody, but also embodying what so many female acts. Often, we get reviewers coming to the show, on a free ticket that we pay for their seats. They come in. They don’t pay. Then they go, “At least it’s free.” I don’t mind if you don’t go see comedy. People always complain about reviewers coming in. They’re the gardening editor being farmed out for comedy festival and they don’t know anything about comedy. I’m actually fine if you don’t know anything about the arts because it would be ideal if you did, but if you don’t, that’s all right because a lot of people coming in to watch me are also at that level of experience.
I’m interested in your viewpoint. If you come in saying normally hype female comics, but I guess I’ll say this one because I have to for work. I still don’t feel like I’ve gotten a fair review out of you because I still feel like you walked in going, “Here we go.” Most of my ticket holders will have looked at my face and decided that they’re happy to hear a talk. Whereas you’ve been strong armed into it somehow.
The belief ends up being self-fulfilling. If you believe that this is the type of comedy that you’re going to get so you don’t go, you’ll never get exposed in a way that you start to realize the great breadth and depth of performance that can exist.
I guess what I’m maybe not changing my mind on, but oscillating between viewpoints is how much social responsibility you should take on yourself to step in the world. I saw some women on the street taking photos and laughing at a homeless person who was sleeping rough and I stepped in and I told them, “You can’t do that.” That, to me, feels like, “You absolutely do that.” Then you say that to other people, “Let it happen and it’s all fucked, and you can’t help it. They’re not going to change.” It’s not so much that I feel that I wouldn’t do it or something, but it certainly is starting to feel the depth of what we’re currently trying to unpick all of a sudden too.
It feels that we’ve floated along for a long time with a lot of deeply prejudiced beliefs engraved in society and suddenly after ten years of having social media and digital communications, we’re seeing different perspectives, all of a sudden become global. One individual’s perspective as a civilian in a wartime environment is suddenly able to be broadcast to millions of people. We never had that technology before and we’re working out what we do. We are privy to the millions and millions of people’s individual lives, it suddenly becomes this incredible tangle and it was always that, but we didn’t have the communication tools to understand it.
I’m largely off social media with the exception of Twitter. I like Twitter at the very beginning and I still largely like it, but it’s changed, and I don’t know exactly what to do with it. It’s become politicized in a way. I haven’t made up my mind yet about that. Does it serve the purpose that I want it to and how? It’s the healthy debate, even if it’s internal.
I feels like it’s something that is so overwhelming that’s the only hesitation in there is if I spend a whole day trying to unpick something online, should I maybe have gone out to the park or like seeing some friends or like what other good could I have done that would have been more important.
For me, I’d rather do what we’ve done. Spend an hour chatting than have that time on Twitter. These conversations move my mind in ways that I find myself replaying. Last question, a secret to success, everybody knows but can’t seem to do?
Value yourself and your time. I feel like one thing that I’m grateful is I’m very nice and very friendly. I feel like I’m quite stern. Success-wise, maybe I hold myself back by not saying yes to everything. Maybe there are meetings or something that I could have been in if I had been a more gregarious being or something, but the incredible power and weight that you hold, exactly what we talked about at the start of the interview of people calling up like, “I’d like you to come and do this for free and it’ll take you two days and it will be all great. This is good and it will be lots of exposure and you’re able to genuinely say, “No. You have to make it worth my while.” “We’ll give you $100.” You go, “No, I genuinely don’t want to do this. I’m home. I’ve got my classical music playing in a documentary on whales. What are you going to do? What are you going to do to get me?” “We’ll give you $500.” “Thank you, that’s how much I will accept for this.”
I feel like people think that they have to do stuff and doing is as valid as doing good quality. The act of it is very important. Whereas I feel like if you would like to be very successful saying yes to lots of opportunities is important, but as much as sort of choosing and yet knowing what you’re worth and knowing what not being annoyed is worth money. Somebody sometimes will ask me to do an editing job and I don’t need $100 or I don’t need this much, but also is that money worth me being annoyed by this other person’s work for three days. I’m going to be slightly irritated by this for three days. Then you choose. If I do this I won’t be able to do this and this and this. What are those experiences’ worth as well? Whereas I feel like people chuck up their time anything in the hope that it helps in the greatest scheme.
Do you have a good way to say no to things?
It depends how they’ve approached me. It can be very irascible. I’m just like, “I’m unable to do it,” because of these fake excuses. I feel like sometimes it can be an educating moment again, picking how much you go in to with people, but to say, “No, that’s exploitative.” I had one theater company called me. I lost my temper at them. I didn’t yell. I sent a very stern email politely-worded because they asked me to come and perform for free for their fundraiser to their theater show, which they were charging tickets to. To have other artists come in and say, “We’re going to do a comedy gala because we’d like a fundraiser for our theater production, which we will absolutely be doing for money. If you guys could come in and work for free so that we can make some money, that would be good. “It’s the only thing that we’re doing a female comedy gala because we want to empower women. How are you empowering women by not paying us so that you can your shitty play? I did spell that out for them, but polite language.
Laura, thank you for being a guest.
It’s a very interesting conversation. It was a lovely chat to come and have.
This was great. I really appreciate it.
About Laura Davis
Laura Davis is a stand-up and comedy writer. She has won Comedy Channel Moosehead Award, Melbourne International Comedy Festival Golden Gibbo Winner, and Melbourne Fringe Best Comedy. Davis has appeared on SBS’s Stand Up shows and ABC TV. She is a writer for Shaun Micallef’s show Mad as Hell.