WHEN STELLAR ARRANGED FOR WENDY HARMER TO INTERVIEW JUDITH LUCY, HILARITY ENSUED, EVEN WHEN THE TOPICS INCLUDED AGEING AND DEATH
Stand-ups Judith Lucy and Wendy Harmer sit down for a lively chat.
ENDY HARMER: The first time I performed stand-up onstage is imprinted in my mind. Can you remember your first time? JUDITH LUCY: Yeah. I talked about it for a year before I got up and did it. Over the year I saw a lot of try-out nights and thought, “I cannot possibly be as bad as some of these people.” Sure enough, I was, because I decided that props were the key to success. I walked onstage with my laundry basket and, oh golly Wendy, the things I had in there. There was a toilet roll – I wrapped the audience in toilet paper at one stage – I had water pistols that I got them to fire at each other. I even had deli goods, because I’d seen a documentary on fundamentalist Christians in the American south who danced with rattlesnakes and routinely got bitten. I thought this was hilarious. So I tried to re-create that with the help of a metre-long dried sausage that I twirled above my head, which promptly disintegrated. I would say most of my act was met with mystified silence. WH: I had no idea you were a prop comic. JL: It lasted for one time only. The manager of Le Joke [at The Last Laugh Comedy Club in Melbourne] said, “We don’t really encourage props, so how about next time you get up onstage and talk about something you know about?” And that’s when I started talking about my personal life and I think we both know I’ve never looked back. WH: The only time I used a prop was a Vogue magazine. Years ago, I went drinking with Mel Smith, Peter Cook and
Tory Mcbride, who ran the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. We got roaring drunk, and Tory said, “Let’s go on to The Last Laugh – they’ve got a late-night club with great comedians.” So we’re all standing at the back, and the MC said, “I’m going to introduce you to a fabulous woman comic. She’s really wonderful.” I turned to Mel Smith and Peter Cook and said, “This will be great, we’ve got some fabulous women comics.” And then they announced my name. JL: Oh, sh*t. WH: I was just pissed enough to think I’d be brilliant. So, I got up there with my Vogue magazine. Of course, I had to turn the pages – I couldn’t manage it at all. The whole act was a complete disaster, utter silence. Yep. That’s my one effort with a prop. You’re an actor, you do shows on the telly and write books – where do you feel you’re at your sparkling best? JL: Oh, I’m fairly mediocre at all of them. I love whatever medium I’m not currently working in. I’m doing the stand-up thinking, “Gee, I’d like to write another book.” But when I start writing a book, I’ll be thinking, “F*ck! Why can’t I do some stand-up?” I think I’m fortunate to do a lot of different things, because I get to whinge about all of them. WH: As you get more experienced in comedy, you get better at judging what’s going to work onstage. How’s your hit rate from page to stage? JL: I think I’m like a fine wine and my writing skills just continue to improve. Yet it’s always sobering when an audience reminds you how wrong you are. Still, when I try material out, jokes I think can’t fail, do. But my miss rate is certainly a lot better than it was 20 years ago – as comedians, we’ve got the best editors in the world and they’re the live audience. I get a bit annoyed that I think comedy is down the bottom of the ladder in terms of the arts. It’s because it’s popular – everyone has some experience of comedy. So it’s anti-elitist, which is great, but means people don’t take it seriously. You have to get the performance right, you have to get the writing right, and the rapport with the audience. There’s a lot going on. WH: Are you more mentally relaxed now? JL: I still get anxious, especially when I’m starting a new show. Denise Scott and I both wept [just before the first performance of their recent joint show]. Scotty did some power weeping – we only had half an hour before we had to get to the venue, and she said, “Right, I’ll cry for 10 minutes.” I’m much more relaxed when I’m actually onstage. WH: And what’s the physical toll? JL: I’m on the very merry dance that is menopause, so I’m not sleeping. And Scotty is dealing with arthritis and her knee has swelled up to the size of a bowling ball. But outside of those things we’re having a marvellous time. WH: People say, “Why aren’t there more older women onstage doing comedy?” and you’ve nailed it – because we fall apart. How do you feel about new young comics’ career paths? If I’d had to come up through the ranks in the days of social media, with people tweeting through my performance, I don’t think I would have coped. JL: I’m delighted there’s no evidence of the first four or five years of my stand-up career. When I first joined The Late Show, I got some horrifying mail, but people still had to sit down and write it and go to the post office. If they’d been tweeting, I would’ve never left the house again. WH: When you look back at your earlier exploits, what do you think about that young lady? JL: I think a lot of my early stand-up was simply a cry for help. I spent a lot of my early years trying to work out my childhood. I reached a point where I stopped being angry and started being creative in ways that were better for me, and were more about me actually having things to say, rather than trying to work things out. WH: I love Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, who kept doing comedy forever and ever. Do you hope to be doing this for a long, long time? JL: I love that documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work. It’s fantastic and heartbreaking at the same time, because Joan Rivers was extraordinary and I love that she kept working, I love that she had so much energy and loved what she did so much, but you got the feeling she only existed when she was onstage. Without that, she had a hole in her. So, my fantasy is to do it until I drop dead, but because I’m still enjoying it, not because I’m looking for something it’ll never be able to give me. Judith Lucy stars in One Night Stan, which premieres on March 24, on Stan. Wendy Harmer hosts Mornings on ABC Radio Sydney.
“I GET ANNOYED THAT COMEDY IS DOWN THE BOTTOM OF THE LADDER IN TERMS OF THE ARTS. IT’S BECAUSE IT’S POPULAR”
FUNNY LADY Judith Lucy onstage during last year’s Just For Laughs