Macbeth: the comedy
Andy Griffiths, the king of kids’ poo and spew’ books, is crash- tackling the Bard. Rosemary Neill reports
IN 2004, Andy Griffiths’s book about a bad boy landed the author in some parents’ and teachers’ bad books. A handful of schools and bookshops refused to stock or promote The Bad Book, which was condemned in South Australia’s parliament because it featured, among other atrocities, a boy who set fire to his bottom, his head and a cat.
Griffiths’s publisher, Pan Macmillan, spoke of a ‘‘ silent wave of censorship at work within the community’’, but the wildly popular children’s writer remained unrepentant, claiming the censoring of his book of nonsense stories and rhymes was caused by ‘‘ competitive over- parenting’’ and ‘‘ political correctness’’.
Griffiths wrote a long response to his critics on his website, arguing that children would quickly recognise that the bad characters’ behaviour was inappropriate, ‘‘ without turning into a generation of kicking, cursing barbarians’’.
Four years on, Griffiths tells Review from his home in Williamstown, a pretty, water- fringed suburb of Melbourne: ‘‘ My traditional audience gets it instantly, ‘ Ah yeah, we’re pretending to be bad.’ ’’ Yet during this phone interview, he admits he eventually buckled to the criticism and removed the burning cat from subsequent editions of The Bad Book . He explains: ‘‘ It upset so many people and really that was just a very black joke, very black understatement.’’
Now the bad boy sets fire to his knee rather than the persecuted puss. Is the deletion a belated admission Griffiths went too far? ‘‘ Not too far,’’ he insists. ‘‘ It was maybe a bit strong and people were getting upset instead of seeing the humour. I think that was becoming counterproductive.’’
Griffiths, creator of the gleefully disgusting ‘‘ poo and spew’’ books adored by younger readers, especially boys, admits he and his longtime collaborator, illustrator Terry Denton, were testing how far they could push boundaries in The Bad Book . ‘‘ Very educational . . . we found the edge,’’ he says drily. Still, he finds it strange that many of his critics were apparently more upset by a burned cat than a burned boy.
Despite censoring The Bad Book , it’s not as if kid lit’s king of bad taste has forsaken cruelty to animals. His and Denton’s first book for beginner readers, The Big Fat Cow That Goes Kapow! , is a collection of short, exuberant nonsense poems and it’s bookended by an imploding cow, though the messy bits are safely abstracted.
The animal carnage continues in Just Macbeth! , Griffiths’s anarchic take on the Shakespearean tragedy, which he has adapted for the Bell Shakespeare Company. In this production, which has opened in Melbourne and moves to Sydney next month, cuddly animals will be cast as Macduff’s children who, in the original, are slaughtered on Macbeth’s orders.
‘‘ We felt killing Macduff’s children would be killing the comedy somewhat,’’ Griffiths deadpans. So he dreamed up this, er, funny alternative: the kittens, puppies and ponies that feature in his best- selling Just! series will be fed into a mashing and pulverising machine. Griffiths is confident he will get away with this because it’s so over- thetop; Macduff, the animals’ father and enemy of Macbeth, will be played by a garden gnome.
It sounds demented, but Griffiths is an author who knows his audience. The books of the teacher turned writer have sold more than three million copies worldwide; his bum trilogy, with memorable titles including Bumageddon: The Final Pongflict and Zombie Bums from Uranus , has basked on The New York Times’s bestseller list for children’s books. The trilogy’s first volume, The Day My Bum Went Psycho ( changed to Butt for US readers), about a runaway bum that tries to take over the world, sold 750,000 copies in the US. Griffiths’s books are also published in Australia, Britain, Spain and South America, and he recently spied bootleg copies in China.
‘‘ I was quite chuffed by that, to think I was worth bootlegging in Beijing,’’ he jokes. I ask whether his muscular sales have made him rich, and he says with startling candour: ‘‘ Oh, I think so, yeah.’’
But it was a long, slow road to bestsellerdom. In 1991, with $ 10,000 in savings and a sense of nagging apprehension, Griffiths gave up teaching in order to write. He studied creative writing at Deakin University and published two textbooks, but it was six years before his first work of children’s fiction, Just Tricking! was published.
Just Tricking! was rejected 12 times before Griffiths resorted to self- publishing it. In 1997, it was finally picked up by the now- defunct Reed Publishing, but only after Denton — already an established illustrator — volunteered to illustrate it. ‘‘ That is what got me over the line,’’ a stillgrateful Griffiths says. ‘‘ Terry was crucial in that era. He realised we shared the same anarchic sense of humour. It’s been a joy to work with him, in that sense.’’
charged up the bestseller lists and after that Griffiths and Denton collaborated on a book a year, shamelessly playing up the things that make kids laugh and parents shriek, ‘‘ Don’t be disgusting!’’
‘‘ Our prime mission at any point is to entertain the reader. I feel that if you do that, you’ve kicked all the other goals as well,’’ Griffiths says.
He was tireless in cementing his following. He toured schools for months on end and, to hone his performance skills, attended a comedians’ training school, Humourversity, in Melbourne. For a while he toured so much he had trouble switching between his introvert writing self and extrovert performing self: ‘‘ Once you get him out, my extrovert is very happy to entertain large audiences, but then it’s hard to get my introvert back. It’s schizy in the best sense of the word. I switch quite easily between them these days, partly because the audiences are so switched on to the humour, I don’t have to explain everything.’’ Today, his shopping centre appearances can involve two hours of signing, but in the early days he endured signings to which no one showed up. Once, only one child turned up. She already owned a Griffiths title, but loudly refused to let her mother buy another. ‘‘ Everyone was mortified, but I regard that moment fondly,’’ he says.
In his youth, he flirted with a punk band. Now a 47- year- old father of two who catches himself bopping to the Spice Girls, he nominates as a career highlight workshopping Just Macbeth! with the Bell Shakespeare actors. ‘‘ I had tears coming out of my eyes the whole time,’’ he says. Is this the same man who makes a living out of bum puns? ‘‘ Tears of laughter,’’ he clarifies.
Griffiths sees the Just Macbeth! commission, which draws heavily on his Just! series of books, as an opportunity to elevate silliness to epic proportions. Bell Shakespeare sees it as an opportunity to draw new audiences to the theatre, just as Griffiths has attracted reluctant readers to the printed page. ‘‘ It’s a real thrill because you have poignancy and high drama mixed with high silliness and nonsense, my favourite kind of comedy,’’ Griffiths says.
In the adaptation, three young characters from the best- selling Just! books drink from the witches’ cauldron and are catapulted on to a chilly Scottish heath. The protagonist, Andy, becomes Macbeth and can have as much whizzfizz ( sherbet) as he wants. However, Shakespeare’s plot dictates that he must kill his best friend, who has morphed into Banquo.
School groups will no doubt flock to Just Macbeth! , as Griffiths’s books are widely read in Australian classrooms. He says this demonstrates how, despite his brushes with censorship, Australia is more tolerant of his humour than the US or Britain. In both those markets, he was told The Bad Book was virtually unpublishable. He adds that in the US ‘‘ my books are beyond the pale for most classrooms. There are a lot of trip wires you can’t cross over there.’’
Even so, The Bad Book was not Griffiths’s only close encounter with Australian censorship. In 2001, the cover image from The Day My Bum Went Psycho , a naked bottom, was used on a poster to promote National Literacy Week. Fearing it would cause offence, federal education bureaucrats removed the poster. Griffiths responded by pulling out of literacy week. The bureaucrats backed down and the dimpled backside was rehabilitated. Griffiths told one journalist: ‘‘ I always dreamed of being banned, I just didn’t think it would be this easy.’’
Successful kids’ authors are nothing if not productive and Griffiths is no exception. In the fortnight before Just Macbeth! opened, he went on a national schools tour, partly to promote his new Schooling Around series, which combines elements of the Just and Bum series’ silliness, minus the scatalogical humour. ‘‘ Because I have the restriction of not being offensive, I had to resort to deeper characterisation,’’ he quips.
When he was an English teacher, he heard kids use the transgressive humour found in his books ‘‘ all the time’’. A fan of exuberant storytelling and silliness for its own sake, he lists Dr Seuss, Enid Blyton, Lewis Carroll and E. W. Cole, a 19th- century Melbourne humorist, as his favourite children’s writers. In an age of over- scheduled, over- monitored child- rearing, he feels laughter should be regarded as an end in itself: Kids know that instinctively, and I love to celebrate that with them.’’
Something wicked this way comes’: Children’s author Andy Griffiths has given Macbeth a zany makeover