Funny Enough: An Interview with Tony Martin

Tony Martin is a funny man. A true veteran of the Australian entertainment industry, Martin’s brought his self-described ‘nerd humour’ to radio, television, feature films, and, with the publication of his first memoir in 2005, Lolly Scramble. He’s the man behind the nationally syndicated Triple M radio program, “Get This” (2006-2007), featured on Triple M for five years between 1987 and 1991 with the D-Generation comedy troupe, and partnered with fellow comedian Mick Molloy in the mid-’90s to produce “Martin/Molloy”, for the Austereo network. That these programs were each gigantic hits is testament to Martin’s ability as a comedian, and his place in Australian popular culture.

If Martin is best known for radio, he is best loved for his part in the seminal Aussie comedy sketch program, The Late Show, which ran on the Australian ABC network between 1992 and 1993. The Late Show featured members of the D-Generation, some of whom would eventually come together to make classic Australian comedy films The Castle (1997) and The Dish (2000). On the show, Martin regularly played on his skinny-guy-with-glasses look, joking about his similarity to the character in Where’s Wally?, while at the same time pulling off hilarious and very un-Martin-like imitations of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Stipe, and Michael Jackson.

When I spoke to Martin recently, I told him that of all the interviews I’ve done over the years, no single subject had created as much buzz in my own social circle as the man behind regular Late Show sketches “Bargearse”, “Pissweak World”, and “Sink the Slipper”. I’ll admit, too, feeling slight giddiness during our chat every time Martin would slip into a fake, comedy voice while telling me stories about his childhood, his writing process, and his bust-ups with radio execs that saw the cancellation of Get This at the height of its popularity. It’s that voice, that familiar nasally burr, with an accent indefinably shifting between English, Australian, and Martin’s native New Zealand, that tickled my funny bone. His is a voice ingrained in our cultural history — the voice of a joker and riotous raconteur. I could have listened all day.

Martin’s books work similarly. His memoirs are a series of short stories, organized chronologically, exploring his life as a child in Te Kuiti, New Zealand, through his years as a radio copywriter in Brisbane, and on to his latter days in Melbourne. His first book, Lolly Scramble was a collection of funny pieces about Martin’s experiences while growing up, and the ridiculous and all-too real things he endured along the way. His new book, A Nest of Occasionals, follows the same formula, but eventually finds a tone slightly lower beat than laugh-out-loud Lolly Scramble.

Martin still manages to make every moment of his childhood seem absolutely pee-your-pants-funny. Like the time he created a detective agency to reclaim his mum’s stolen Tupperware bowl:

Eventually I stopped reading The Three Investigators… but I never stopped dreaming of the perfect hideout. When Saddam Hussein was discovered cowering in that hole, all I recall thinking was, “Wow, cool hideout”.

Or the time he and his schoolmates attempted a shot for shot recreation of Star Wars with a stationary camera and no editing tools:

After ten minutes of pawing the equipment and seeing what we each looked like on camera (my appearance prompted Jimi Putu to coin the term ‘DorkVision’), the novelty wore off …

Or – as in my favourite story – the time he became obsessed with renting VHS tapes while living in Brisbane, featuring movies that had bypassed cinemas in his hometown:

Four months living in Brisbane and I still hadn’t seen the Big Pineapple, the Gold Coast, or any of the famous landmarks. But I had seen Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, and The Godfather Part II, These were what I called ‘six-star movies’, but I’d rent anything and crap on about it like it was a work of art. I think I even gave the Head Cleaning Tape four stars (‘Does what it sets out to do’). I recall describing Weird Science, in all seriousness, as ‘a poor man’s Zapped!‘.

While this is all good stuff, it’s notable that Martin refrains from including in his memoirs details, funny or not, about his more celebrated exploits. There’s not a single backstage bit about The Late Show, or Martin’s films — cop-comedy Bag Eggs, and boy-band parody Boytown. He doesn’t drop celebrity anecdotes about the famous people he’s met over the years, or go into detail about the “Get This” debacle. Most notably, he resists detailing his much-publicised feud with Mick Molloy over the rights to a mock-documentary Martin directed for the Boytown DVD called Boytown: Confidential.

Instead, Martin regales with the stories that really matter – those out of the spotlight. Both memoirs, particularly Nest of Occasionals reveal far more about Martin than any tell-all could. We learn why it is that, on radio, Martin seems like a bottomless mine of pointless pop-culture facts, from where he gets his ability to convincingly mimic anyone from Arnie to Paul Simon (even with that voice), and we uncover some of the reasons this man with the unhinged upbringing manages to make people laugh in droves.

Book: Lolly Scramble

Author: Tony Martin

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia

Release date: 2005-01

Format: Paperback

Length: 336 pages

The most telling story in Nest of Occasionals is the final one, in which Martin revisits Te Kuiti and attempts to seek out his ancestry, including his grandfather who, Martin always believed, was editor and creator of the local King County Chronicle, a veritable celebrity, and the Martin family’s own sort of Charles Foster Kane. A writer himself, Martin sought out his grandpa, hoping to connect with the man whose interests clearly mirrored his. Martin discovers, however, that real life doesn’t always match the stories we’re told:

All my life people have been telling me that my grandfather started a newspaper. That at one point he had nearly four million dollars in the bank. And that during the ’58 flood, he single-handedly turned out an issue of the Chronicle when the entire town was underwater. [But] like pretty much everything I’ve been told about our family, it’s about to be revealed as 100 per cent bullshit.

Even with this injection of drama, Martin never manages to lose the funny. And, as I learned during our conversation, that’s the whole point.

Do you start with a story and find the humor in it, or do you remember the funny incident and build the story around that?

I definitely start with funny. It’s as crude as this: What are the funniest things that have happened to me, and can I get a story out of it? With the first book, I didn’t even write it to be a book. I’d written two failed novels, like so many people, and I’d taken things that had happened in real life and put them into fiction.

For example, in the first book, there’s the story about the woman in the Body Corporate who went around handing out air horns. She handed 22 air horns to everyone in my block of flats in case there was this sex offender hiding in the laundry. So suddenly, when it was in a fictional context, it wasn’t funny because part of what makes that funny is knowing that someone really did do that. And so I thought, as a writing exercise, I’d just try and write one of these events as it happened. I wrote the one about the typography instructor just as a one off writing exercise, and then about two days after I wrote that, I went to see a notary public guy and I went, hang on this is quite funny so I wrote that up as a story and I went, I’ll just keep doing them and then I’ll put them on the Internet for free, for people to read.

So, I’d got up to six of them and I gave them to a friend of mine who was a book editor and she just happened to be married by coincidence to [children’s author] Andy Griffiths. He read them and he called me up and said: You don’t know me but I found these stories on our dining table, do you mind if I send them to my publisher? He sent them to Pan MacMillan. It wasn’t until then that I thought: This could be a book.

I’ve come from very much a joke writing background, so it’s very much starting with the joke. But not wanting it to be a bit of stand-up comedy. In a lot of the stories, I get to a certain point and I go, this isn’t actually a story, it’s just an anecdote and it should be 500 words on the Internet, so it’s starting from the funny bits, building out, and going: Is this actually a story? The guy who made the giant ball of silver paper in the wardrobe — that’s something that strikes me as hilariously funny. And I found all the things that really made me laugh were from real life as opposed to show business. I just thought how can I get that into a story? And I built outwards from that. Of course once you start doing that you have to encompass things that aren’t funny as well. So it all ends up in there. The first intention is always: What’s a funny story?

Is it fair to say you left out all the showbiz stuff on purpose?

A lot of people were very disappointed by this book saying: We thought there’d be a whole lot of stuff about the making of The Late Show, and where’s all the stuff about why you got sacked from Triple M? But the problem with that is, even if I wanted to do that, I’d never get it past the legal departments. And when you’re writing about landlords and people you’re in plays with — once you’ve got that magic trick of being able to change people’s names and, in some cases, even change the location, you can be completely honest. And you just couldn’t do that [in a tell-all]. You know, make Mick, Mick Bolloy. You’d have to censor yourself and tone it down and there wouldn’t be any truth in it. It would just be a fluffing of the pillows of your own biography.

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 DishThe 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.

Martin writes “Scarcely Relevant”, a weekly column over at The Scrivener’s Fancy. While you’re there, check out his re-imagining of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road featuring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.