Com­edy INK

It took sleep de­pri­va­tion, lar­rikin­ism and a lot of word play to cre­ate The Naked Vicar Show, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv - Graeme Blun­dell

‘ HESE days, when it’s ac­tu­ally on, television com­edy is do- it- your­self gone mad, with peo­ple writ­ing, act­ing, di­rect­ing and pro­duc­ing their own shows, or just ad- lib­bing them,’’ vet­eran com­edy writer Tony Sat­tler is say­ing, al­most sadly. ‘‘ But com­edy is not about spon­tane­ity; it is highly struc­tured and re­quires sound ar­chi­tec­ture.’’

We are talk­ing about The Naked Vicar Show , the com­edy se­ries Sat­tler cre­ated with Gary Reilly, 31/ hours of which has just been re­leased

2 on DVD. A still hi­lar­i­ous and abra­sively af­fec­tion­ate trib­ute to a fast- fad­ing cul­tural lar­rikin­ism, Vicar cre­ated the sur­real brand- name com­edy of Ted Bull­pitt and his pre­cious Kingswood, which be­came a hugely suc­cess­ful show in its own right. And lines such as, ‘‘ You’re not wrong, Narelle’’ and ‘‘ Bruce — piss off’’ en­tered the ver­nac­u­lar.

The show’s stars, Ross Hig­gins, Kev Golsby, Noe­line Brown, Colin McEwan and Julie McGre­gor, be­came house­hold names. Chil­dren used to run up to Brown in the street, say­ing, ‘‘ Tell me to piss off,’’ and she would charm­ingly oblige. She wore large sun­glasses and a curly wig in an at­tempt at anonymity. Peo­ple called out, ‘‘ Love the wig, Noe­line.’’

Reilly and Sat­tler fer­vently be­lieved there was more to hu­mour than the un­der­dog’s re­venge on the pow­er­ful or a sub­ver­sive ri­poste to the harsh­ness of our phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment. ‘‘ We had de­cided to only do ur­ban mod­ern Aus­tralian hu­mour, noth­ing to do with big blokes with big hats lean­ing on fences,’’ Sat­tler says.

The ti­tle came from a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle the pair saw one day as they trawled the news for ma­te­rial, ‘‘ as des­per­ate com­edy writ­ers do’’. A story about an un­clothed se­nior Catholic cleric found dead in a Parisian brothel. ‘‘ We de­cided to use naked vicar be­cause we didn’t want to go naked car­di­nal. Vicar is fun­nier.’’

The writ­ers shared a dis­cur­sive intelligence that sought sym­me­try, pat­tern and con­trivance as means to com­edy. Both were en­tranced — and still are, judg­ing by their com­i­cally cir­cuitous

TBack then, net­works weren’t ashamed of ideas or so­cial satire

con­ver­sa­tion — by the de­tails of words, quirky sen­tence struc­ture, rhyming slang, puns and cog­ni­tive rid­dles.

Look­ing at the show again I can’t get over how well the cast han­dled the mouth­fuls of strange words we made them learn each week,’’ Reilly says. ‘‘ Watch­ing it now, you see a cast of comics, who recorded be­fore a live au­di­ence, ex­pend­ing a great deal of en­ergy — phys­i­cal and psy­chic — in chas­ing laughs with their de­ri­sive hu­mour. What stands out is their ver­bal con­trol and an in­nate show­man­ship that made au­di­ences feel they were part of the television game, on the inside with the per­form­ers.’’

Sat­tler and Reilly met when both worked in ad­ver­tis­ing in the early 1970s. Soon they were writ­ing ma­te­rial for new ra­dio sta­tion 2JJ, which was bi­ased to­wards lo­cally pro­duced mu­sic and com­edy. They in­vented what be­came known as

‘‘ anti- ads’’, a se­ries of ad­ver­tise­ments for fake prod­ucts, and wrote se­ri­als such as the suc­cess­ful Chuck Chun­der and the Space Pa­trol . Asked to do a half- hour show for Ra­dio One ( now Ra­dio Na­tional), they de­cided on a po­lit­i­cal- satir­i­caljoke sketch show and The Naked Vicar Show was born on ra­dio.

‘‘ Then we thought, let’s make this a TV se­ries, went to ABC TV, who hated the show as it turned out, and ended up at Chan­nel 7,’’ says Sat­tler, who also pro­duced with Reilly. ‘‘ Which was great, be­cause we didn’t have to write as much be­cause of the com­mer­cial breaks.’’

For sev­eral years they wrote in a small of­fice in McMa­hon’s Point near the Syd­ney Har­bour Bridge. ‘‘ It was a hor­ri­ble run- down old build­ing,’’ Sat­tler says. ‘‘ We used to leave home on Mon­days and hope to get back on Fri­days. We didn’t have the lux­ury of many writ­ers, so we just some­how shoul­dered it.’’

Reilly shud­ders when he thinks about the process. ‘‘ We slept on the couch and en­dured some­thing we called ‘ I’m com­ing, God’, which is when you put your head down and all th­ese pat­terns bom­bard you. Sleep de­pri­va­tion can drive you crazy when you are writ­ing an hour of com­edy a week.’’

They fig­ured out if they worked for six hours at a stretch and slept for two, or napped, they could go on in­def­i­nitely. ‘‘ How screwed- up is a so­ci­ety that has to have peo­ple sit­ting in dingy lit­tle dark rooms try­ing to work out how to make them laugh? Why can’t they make them­selves laugh, for Christ’s sake?’’ Sat­tler asks.

One rou­tine played end­lessly be­tween them. ‘‘ Is it a joke?’’ one would ask. ‘‘ It looks like one,’’ the other an­swered. ‘‘ I’ll tell you in a week’’ was the tag, of­ten said to­gether.

Look at the show again and a gi­ant hook takes you back to that time when lo­cal TV was buoy­ant and of­ten sub­ver­sive, when net­works weren’t ashamed of ideas or so­cial satire, and comic peo­ple crashed through classes, gen­ders and na­tion­al­i­ties. In the mid- 1970s the air­waves were full of peo­ple be­hav­ing clev­erly and badly as the cul­tural icon­o­clasts of the ’ 60s grabbed the main­stream me­dia. No. 96 and The Box pre­sented a level of tit­il­la­tion and taboo sub­jects that had never been seen on Aus­tralian TV. Garry McDon­ald’s sur­real, hy­per­ac­tive Norman Gun­ston cre­ated comic an­ar­chy; and Gra­ham Kennedy mocked author­ity with his fi­nal Tonight shows, then dis­man­tled the con­ven­tions of the quiz show with Blan­kety Blanks .

And ev­ery net­work was run­ning good Aus­tralian drama. ‘‘ There were hun­dreds of ac­tors in work, no won­der you couldn’t get a taxi,’’ says Sat­tler. ‘‘ Th­ese days you just call out that you need an ac­tor and a taxi ar­rives.’’ I ask him what a life in com­edy adds up to. ‘‘ White hair and a drink­ing prob­lem,’’ he says. Reilly be­lieves it is what he’s lost that hits him oc­ca­sion­ally. ‘‘ That manic feel­ing that ev­ery­thing you look at has to be of comedic use; there was never a mo­ment off. I can un­der­stand why Spike Milligan went mad.’’

He gra­ciously gives me the last line for this story. ‘‘ We al­ways took great com­fort in the knowl­edge that if we made only one per­son laugh, we’d be sacked.’’ The Best of the Naked Vicar Show, Col­lec­tor’s 2 DVD Edi­tion ( PG) is out now on Shock.

Abra­sively af­fec­tion­ate trib­ute to cul­tural lar­rikin­ism: Com­edy writ­ers Gary Reilly, left, and Tony Sat­tler flank The Naked Vicar Show ac­tor Ross Hig­gins

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