ICAME to the slightly odd Lawrence Leung cold, having missed the bearded young comedian’s earlier ABC Choose Your Own Adventure sketch series and never having seen him live. I quickly warmed to his ‘‘ reluctant sceptic’’ schtick in this new six-part ABC series, Lawrence Leung’s Unbelievable, and enjoyed the whimsical metaphysical edge as he examines the irrational and the impossible.
Leung’s show is produced by the Chaser team in its incarnation as Unbelievable Productions, with Julian Morrow as executive producer. It’s a series filled with tricks of the mind, perceptual observations and those perplexing questions with which this onetime illusionist and former major in psychology seems obsessed. Do psychic powers really exist? How does one make contact with aliens? What are ghostly apparitions? Is it possible to trick a master magician? What do sceptics really believe, if anything? How do liars and cheats manipulate us and deceive us without us knowing?
It’s fertile ground for humour, but don’t expect the transgressive comedy of, say, John Safran, who through his various shows continues in his loopy way also to seek answers to universal questions.
Safran’s humour, propelled by a sense of disorderly wisdom, is a warning about taking anything too seriously and is often truly cringe-making.
While Leung also employs documentary stunts in the style of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G and Borat, unlike the intellectually unruly Safran he rarely causes as much displeasure as he does surprise and delight.
Nor is the gentle Leung a kind of fundamentalist comedian like Chris Lilley, who, for all his obvious ability to create excruciatingly funny situations, never goes after the easy gag. Even when he is seemingly ad libbing, you sense him feinting, drawing the situation out and refusing to deny the moment’s authenticity.
Leung is altogether more relaxed, sometimes even a little ramshackle, in his approach to comedy. This is surprising given that the 33-year-old is an accomplished, award-winning comedian who has been performing internationally since 2001, having started doing stand-up and improvised sketch comedy in University of Melbourne revues.
He has taken his solo shows across Australia and the globe, including Auckland, Dublin, four seasons at the Edinburgh Fringe, London’s Soho Theatre and several at the Sydney Opera House. He’s a favourite at Melbourne’s International Comedy Festival, a regular guest on radio breakfast shows and a writer of pranks for the Chaser. His ability to hold an audience has been perfected by a surprisingly lengthy ‘‘ apprenticeship in the long grass’’, as vaudeville comedians used to call the years of working draughty halls in small towns in the provinces.
His vast experience is paradoxically at odds with his performing style, which is quaint, naive and not far removed from an 11-year-old’s local church presentation or school social night turn. But the timing is meticulous as he delivers the idiosyncratic material of his own creation. His live audiences love him for his capricious storytelling style and obsession with nerdy topics such as puzzles, 1980s childhood icons, high school crushes and ghosts. And in this series there is also his delight in con artists, card cheats, poker players, undercover cops and those who hunt UFOs.
In the first episode Leung, in his daggy, rolled-up jeans and bright red cardigan, sets off on his international quest determined to believe in the unbelievable but encountering rational explanations that keep getting in his way to enlightenment. As does his mother, who keeps ringing him at inopportune moments to check whether he is keeping his receipts.
First up he tells us how taking a girl to superstar ‘‘ psychic medium’’ John Edward’s Crossing Over Down Under show ended the relationship. Then he attends the Mind, Body, Spirit Festival (‘‘the Big Day Out for new agers, except no one is wearing Australian flags’’). There he is told by an unlikely looking medium, more club bouncer than visionary, that ‘‘ there are no roads, no compass and no maps; all you have to navigate with is what you are feeling’’.
Perplexed, Leung finds fortune teller Lynne Kelley (a class act who should have her own TV show), who happens to be the clear-thinking author of The Sceptic’s Guide to the Paranormal. She drolly instructs him on the tricks of ‘‘ cold reading’’ and out-andout cheating, and the way psychics and mediums can also boost their apparent accuracy in other ways. They get something of a free ride from the tendency of credulous folk to count the apparent hits and ignore the misses. This apparently is known as ‘‘ confirmation bias’’, referring to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts them.
Leung realises he needs some system to tell people’s fortunes and do the psychic thing himself. This leads our intrepid hero to try his own readings using the ‘‘ vague cliches’’ (all anyone else uses, after all) of a karaoke screen, scrolling the lyrics of Madonna and Eminem songs to prompt him as he reads the minds of gullible passers-by.
It’s an elaborate and very funny set-up, which is then topped when he uses an Australian psychic to attempt to find the still missing former prime minister Harold Holt and another to find someone who is still alive
and happens to be in the same room. Both fail in grand fashion, one foolishly, the other pompously.
Then Leung encounters an American magician who can drive a car blindfolded (I still can’t work this one out) and attempts to win the million-dollar prize from sceptic James Randi for ‘‘ evidence of any paranormal, supernatural or occult power or event’’.
It’s all rather benign humour though Leung, who wrote the show, and his producers cram many clever sketches into the episode, and it’s often very amusing. It’s not really Leung’s fault that some of the alleged mediums come across as arrogant, cynical and manipulative and not as heroic as he imagines at the start of his quest.
He’s a comic who, if you’re unfamiliar with him as I was, grows on you. You have to let him ‘‘ come to you’’, as comedy writers like to say of difficult material. For all his child-like anxiety to please, he is always fated to act as the butt of life’s indignities. Nothing seems to quite work out for him but, no matter how much he is buffeted, his eagerness to please always picks him up again. He’s never in the doldrums, always able to muster a vestige of hope from somewhere in the back of his mind.
He brings with him a deceptive air of under-rehearsed confusion, which is again suggestive of a student let loose with a couple of mates holding cameras. (Though a second viewing made me realise how tautly edited and delivered the material was.)
His stock-in-trade is to produce a momentary look of intense bewilderment as things go wrong or don’t quite work out — which happens a lot — followed by a small laugh, at once his wand and safety valve. It launches hopes and greets failures alike. His trick really is to gently send up the self-importance of every second-rate magician who could pull anything out of the hat but his own success.
There’s a lovely sense of comic literalism about Leung; he takes everything that happens to him equally seriously, whether it’s visual or verbal. He exudes a fervent earnestness, an air of imprudent authority that of course is never matched by the results of his investigations.
Leung works at a halting, quiet pace as he maintains an almost quixotic stand against the notions that not only bewilder us but suck so many of us right in.
He’s not really a satirist; one is tempted to call him that, but the barbed bitterness and the bitchy adrenalin are absent. What replaces them in this series is a simpleminded love of silliness. But have no doubt, behind the jests and awkward comic set-ups and daggy costumes and gimcrack props, a very astute mind is at work. THE incisive and gorgeously chatty Virginia Trioli also returns this week in the 13th episode of her occasional Artscape series In Conversation. This time she conducts three revealing interviews, with rock crooner Bryan Ferry, photographer Annie Leibovitz and that enduring figure of style, Jerry Hall.
Trioli is easily the best arts interviewer on Australian TV — there aren’t many — highly intelligent and I’ve-won-a-Walkley-twice unrelenting. Her journalistic mind is so active Trioli appears animated even when she sits stock still and quiet. Though with Ferry she appears simply dazed by her proximity to the urbane and self-deprecating 65-year-old singer who has dated some of the world’s most beautiful models, some of whom also appeared scantily clad on his album covers.
It’s a fascinating interview, funny, charming and occasionally quite intimate, even a little flirtatious. Watch for Ferry’s nod and half wink at the end of the exchange as the credits begin to roll. It’s easy to see why so many women thought they caught the glint of possibility with the still outrageously handsome singer.
‘‘ There’s a wonderful ease and candour that comes with speaking with artists who are past the great melodramas of their creative and public lives, and are instead now basking in the much softer light of a well-established life and career,’’ Trioli says.
She handles it all with skill and wonderful empathy. Like all expert interviewers she relies on intuition, that neurological alarm bell that signals what to ask and when to ask it. Trioli listens intently, her eyes shining with genuine interest, turning interview into quiet, sometimes intense conversation. Few TV interviewers are able to get their subjects to reveal more than they usually would in such circumstances.
She tells Ferry she enjoyed Keith Richards’s autobiography. ‘‘ I loved that observa- tion where Richards said he’s never been able to put ‘ the make’ on a woman; he always had to wait for them to come to him,’’ she says. Ferry smiles and you can almost feel him blushing. ‘‘ Join the club, pal,’’ he mutters. ‘‘ It’s interesting; I’m always lost for words really. That’s why I write songs — it’s kind of a mating call.’’
We tend to impatient with ABC arts programming but, as series executive producer Tarni James says, the public broadcaster is the only free-to-air network interested in creating a diverse slate of shows that deal with culture, whether high or low. And Trioli’s interviews are an integral part of that landscape.
‘‘ This series is designed to have an impact by scheduling three important and highprofile interviews in a row,’’ James says. ‘‘ The half-hour format allows ample time to really get under the skin of the artist and discuss and discover what drives their creativity.’’
Trioli once told me she was never a Michael Parkinson fan, believing he signalled his prompts too transparently and was too obvious with his progression from question to question. ‘‘ He rarely asks a question to which he doesn’t already know the answer,’’ she said. Instead she admired American Dick Cavett. ‘‘ He was chatty, took the second seat so the talent could shine, and he listened,’’ she said. ‘‘ He had a lightness of touch, too; he never seemed stitched up.’’
And it’s a delight to watch, almost voyeuristically — the studio, burnished and artfully lit as if for a romantic dinner — as Trioli sets up the singer with questions so he can shine. And shine he does, his answers infused with bits of deeply felt personal biography that surprise with their spontaneity and warm generosity. The clips of Ferry performing are wonderful, too, especially a live version of his cover of Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall from 1973 and his version of John Lennon’s Jealous Guy, filmed on stage in Dortmund in 1980 a week after Lennon’s murder.
More Trioli, more often, please. Artscape: In Conversation with Virginia Trioli, Tuesday, 10pm, ABC1 Lawrence Leung’s Unbelievable, Wednesday, 9.30pm, ABC1
From left, Brian Ferry, Annie Leibovitz and Jerry Hall will all submit to Virginia Trioli’s intimate conversation