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