The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell

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

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