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Funny Enough: An Interview with Tony Martin

Memoirist and comedian Tony Martin talks about commercial radio dumbasses and explains just what it is that makes Running with Scissors so darned unbelievable.

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.

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