All the Pieces to a Funny Piece
How did you find the structuring of the stories? When you’ve established the funny, do you intentionally find the beginning, middle, and end, or do you just write and see what happens?
My biggest problem over the years is more sort of fear, really. Like when I made Bad Eggs, I was so frightened of fucking it up that I was so controlling of every aspect of it, and it ended up being a little too wooden. Often when you write something, you don’t actually understand what you’ve done until someone explains what you’ve done. So I wanted to keep a little bit of mystery. I didn’t want to make too much sense. And then the editing process is so ruthless and I just shave and shave away and get rid of bits. I don’t actually don’t quite know what the story is until I’ve finished it.
With the detective agency story, I just remember a lot of funny things had happened. That was the first one I wrote for this book. I always remember the hilarious conversations at the dinner table, with the red wine and all that, and I thought: That’s some funny stuff, now how can I find a story? What I liked about the story is that it had the structure of a detective story. As in real life, it’s just got a pathetic ending. We didn’t solve the case and the container got returned anyway.
But that’s what real life is like. I read that book Running with Scissors, and I did not believe for one second that a single word of it was true because it’s too neat. Every time he walks into the room someone’s eating some paint. I’m going: This is too neat and tidy. Real life is messy and stories peter out and don’t have endings. So I wanted to just get the idea of a detective story that had a really pissy ending.
It’s funny that you mention Running with Scissors. That’s one I always refer back to when considering memory in memoir. You have anecdotes; he has such detailed memories. How does memory work for you when coming up with the details?
It’s funny because I remember things from when I was a kid really clearly. I have this weird memory that I’ve always had for remembering everything to do with pop culture, obsessions with comics, movies, TV shows. I can remember from 40 years ago, conversations about that. I couldn’t tell you the person’s name probably, what they looked like or what their parents looked like, but I remember exactly their opinions about particular comics and movies. That’s why there’s so much of that stuff in the book. People say: It’s amazing you remember that. And I say: What you have to understand is everything that’s in that story is all I can remember about that.
The way you structure the story is, I wouldn’t say easy, but you’re limited in your options. For example, with the detective one—I go: Okay, what’s everything I can remember, every conversation I can remember, every opinion someone had, clothes they wore, everything that happened, every comic that we talked about. You just write them all out on cards and you go: How does this join up into a story? Which ones do you remove? When you get to a point where you can’t remember anything, you go: Well, that’s just going to be a blank story. Sometimes what frustrates people is, they say: Oh, it doesn’t have a proper ending. But I’m stuck with what I can remember.
I’ve always written things down in Spirax notebooks, just funny phrases. It might be in a different story, the one about whether we should called the kids from the special class “mentals”—that was so funny. I remember writing all that down and then that would be repeated in our family, those stories would be going around for so long that we can all do them off by heart.
The more recent conversations, like with the Notary Public, I write that down the next day. I call it a black box recording. I just made him a lot less racist that he was in real life. With the ones when you’re a kid, I remember the key phrases – you’re not inventing the conversation, you’re not making anyone say anything they didn’t say. You’re concertinaing real life. The hardest part is the bland lines. The funny lines are the ones I remember.
A really simple example would be in the story, “Unlucky 12a” in the first book, I’m looking at a sticker, this was in Melbourne, and there’s a sticker saying ‘Vote Barry Unsworth in the NSW Election’. And the woman from the Body Corporate comes down and gives me the horn thing. Now whether those two events happened at exactly the same time, you know, probably not. I noticed that sticker every day and laughed about it. But, in the story, it’s as though I’m finding it for the first time when she comes up. That’s as a fake as the books get. So, yeah, you made up stuff? Well, no, the only stuff I made up are the boring bits.
How does that style of writing differ from writing stand-up comedy? I figure you would also start that with the search for the funny thing.
With a lot of these stories, I’ve tried to do them in stand-up and they haven’t worked. And it’s because in stand-up you have to tidy things up. Like the story of the guy with the silver ball. If you read these stories out, some would go 50- to 55-minutes. In stand-up, I tried to get the silver ball story down to five minutes. And it was so tidied up that you could tell people just didn’t believe it was true. By putting it in the book, you can see all the messy dead ends and things that don’t quite make sense. That’s how you know it’s true; it’s kind of the randomness of it. Even though there stories are quite neat and tidy when you look at them on paper, as a story its quite messy, a lot of dead ends, lots of things that don’t have anything to do with the main story, but you just put them in.
So the shaving away of material must be quite harsh for a stand-up routine?
I don’t know how other people work, but in stand-up you’re just desperate to get to the next funny bit. So if something doesn’t get a laugh, you chop it out. If that little observation doesn’t get a laugh, chop it out. When I did the silver ball one, I loved the bit about putting down a piece of silver paper and hearing the crinkling sound as the guy took it without even looking around and he’s already gone. That’s something I remember clear as a bell, that’s in the story, that doesn’t get a laugh when you do it in stand-up so you leave that out. When you start leaving out more and more bits of that, and you’re just left with a wardrobe and a silver ball and an argument, it feels made up.
This book is not as laugh-out-loud hilarious as Lolly Scramble. Why do you think that is? I have a feeling this book was slightly less about the joke, and more about the real life that surrounds those funny moments.
I just didn’t want this to be exactly the same again. With the first book, I just thought—the bus trip was funny, the amateur play going wrong was funny, the guy who wouldn’t take his aerial down on his house was funny. I just started with a long list of things that made me laugh. Now, for this one, to give myself a bit more of a challenge, I thought: Can I take that same comedy voice and apply it to slightly more serious subjects, like the racism dinner one? Then, of course, there was setting myself this challenge of going back to this town that I’m from. It’s quite a different feel entirely. So I thought just to try and raise the stakes for myself, I’ll try and apply the same comic voice to just slightly more serious subjects.
The fear is always that it’s not going to be quite as funny. It’s like my friends who made The Castle and The Dish—The Dish is a better film, but The Castle has more jokes. It’s sort of like that. I hope it’s still as funny.
Did you worry about how the humor would translate?
I’m assuming its baffling for anyone in America. But our pop culture is so Americanized, anyway. I haven’t counted but if you check all the TV shows and things that I talk about, most of them are American. When a publisher looks at it, no-one’s gonna know [British comic series] “Whizzer & Chips”, that’s just a foreign language. But the stories are really universal. A lot of people from England have reacted really well to it. With both books, the first half is set in New Zealand. I always worried, will people even here know what I’m talking about? I use as my yardstick, the Clive James book Unreliable Memoirs, which is one of my favorites. I read that when I was 18 or something, and everything in it made perfect sense in Auckland.
How did you decide to balance the comedy and the heavy drama?
I think the subject matter itself is heavy. I didn’t write much about my family in the first book because many of them are still alive. I had a lot of people who knew me who were disappointed by the first book, who said: I thought there’d be more stuff about your family. So, with the last story, I thought I’d go back to the town I’m from. I didn’t have any plans. It could have been a two-page travelogue. I didn’t go there with the intention of writing a story about my granddad; he was just one of the people I was going to check out.
Of course, once I started uncovering all the stuff, and, I have to say, I could only use about 25 percent of the stuff I discovered—the real story is even more shocking, But my mum is still alive, my dad’s still alive, so I just can’t. I had what objectively could be described as quite a nightmare-ish childhood and it doesn’t seem that shocking to me. It’s only when you’re telling someone else and you see the look of alarm on their face, and you go: Oh right, you’re from a normal family where people don’t have arguments and this seems shocking to you. I’m so used to it that I just see the funny side of it.
In comedy pretty much everyone’s got a fucked up family, so I can sit down with [fellow Australian comedian and author of the memoir, The Lucy Family Alphabet] Judith Lucy and we just go: Did that happen to you? Yes. Did that happen to you? Yes.
So, it was a challenge with that last story I wanted to write something longer. I wanted to write something as it was happening. I’d had that in the first book with the Notary Public story, and it was quite intoxicating. It’s probably something that journalists go through all the time—writing something the day after it’s happened rather than sitting there and straining to remember something from 40 years ago. Actually writing it while it’s all fresh in your mind. I thought: I want to have that feeling again, so I’ll write the last chapter as it’s happening so I can write down every single detail.
There I was just trying to do that, and it wasn’t until I read it all back that I thought: Bloody hell. I didn’t realize how serious it was. That’s part of the problem, if there is a problem. I know a lot of people who don’t like this book as much as the first. They say: Oh, I liked the first half, you know, all the cute sort of childhood stuff, but it gets a bit dark towards the end. That’s because it’s structured chronologically. It’s easy to be funny about childhood nostalgia; it’s harder to be funny about the stuff at the end of it.
Have you had the desire to write about the real-life events, such as the Boytown and Triple M dramas?
Well, I don’t want it to just be a name-drop-y kind of book. All my serious comedy writing – it’s like watching a bunch of scientists in a room. I actually did consider writing a book about what happened with Get This and everything. I thought: I could tell the whole story, but I’d need to go into journalist mode, and I don’t have a any journalism training. It’s not enough to just tell my story—that’s a bit indulgent—you’d have to place it in the context of the history of Triple M and then place that in the context of radio in general, and then you’d really have to make it a book about why our situation happened, and it’s really just about the dumbing down of mainstream entertainment because of fear.
With radio networks revenue is shrinking, competition comes from the Net, and they’re panicking. And because they’re dumb guys, they start panicking and they immediately go: Right, let’s dumb everything down—don’t do a [subversive] 13-minute sketch about Steven Seagal, talk about the Veronicas for two-minutes. So, if you listen to commercial radio, it’s just dumber and dumber all the time. It’s insulting to the listeners. They’re assuming that everyone’s an idiot. So, you’d have to write a book that took in that as well. It could just be my anecdotes, but you’d have to put those in that context and I’m not actually sure that I’m up for that. So, then I think: Would it be funny enough?
Are there just endless stories? Could you simply keep writing these books?
I knew I’d have enough for a second one. I’m not sure if I’d be able to remember enough for a third one, but as a discipline to try to keep myself writing, I started [online column space] “The Scrivener’s Fancy”. It’s obviously written a lot more quickly than the books, but I’ve already written maybe my 45th one of those. I’m already up maybe 55,000 words, and I’m going: Hang on, the book’s only 70,000 words. I mean, it’s not all book quality, but I think maybe 20,000 words are book quality.
I’m amazed how the discipline of forcing myself to write this column every week is actually making me remember a lot of other stuff. I’m not sure if there would be enough for a third book in this style, but there’s something else I’d sort of like to do. I read that book The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper—it’s an amazing book. It’s not a funny book, obviously, but that woman set herself an amazing task, and converted it to a book.
I like the idea of setting myself some kind of task and trying to write a whole book in sort of the way that last chapter in A Nest of Occasionals is written—some really big subject to try and apply the same comedy to it. The primary intention is always to be funny, which is why the books are written. There are so many memoirs by people who I didn’t want to hear anything about, and my excuse for being so indulgent is that it’s meant to be funny.