Kate McLen­nan and Kate McCart­ney are not pussy­foot­ing around

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - Anna Krien

Kate McLen­nan and Kate McCart­ney are not pussy­foot­ing around

It’s 3 am. “An hour usu­ally re­served for piss­ing with your eyes closed,” Kate McLen­nan says in a sparkly voice while sit­ting bolt upright in bed next to co-host Kate McCart­ney. Time to Get Krack!n. Cue the buzzy theme mu­sic (think ka­zoo crossed with a mos­quito) and a TV mon­tage of the Kates “kid­ding around” in stilet­tos, skin-tone stock­ings, and boxy block-coloured mini dresses. Measly clap­ping starts up off-cam­era and the Kates step out, as if for the first time, onto the set of their very own morn­ing show.

“Hal­looo,” McLen­nan coos, as if over­whelmed by the ap­plause, while McCart­ney, as in­el­e­gant as a new­born foal, care­fully nav­i­gates the steps in her heels. The Kates of The Ka­ter­ing Show are back. They now have “rich girl” hair and a slot on the na­tional broad­caster, al­beit at an hour where the “street view” is of a dark al­ley. Never mind. “Look at this set,” McLen­nan chimes, and the Kates gaze at a grey couch swamped with geo­met­ric cush­ions, and framed by faux mid­cen­tury lamps and a fruit bowl filled to burst­ing. McLen­nan and McCart­ney stare wide-eyed, as if to say, “All this, for us?” It is a weirdly “meta” mo­ment as the suc­cess is twofold, for the Kates’ on­screen char­ac­ters and the “real” Kates off­screen. From rent­ing an Airbnb prop­erty in sub­ur­ban Mel­bourne so they could shoot their on­line se­ries to skew­er­ing break­fast tele­vi­sion in prime time on the ABC, McLen­nan and McCart­ney have joined in on the past decade’s ex­plo­sion of foul-mouthed, shame­less and bril­liant fe­male com­edy. Amer­i­can wits such as Jenji Ko­han (Or­ange Is the New Black), Tina Fey ( 30 Rock), Lena Dun­ham (Girls), Amy Schumer, and Broad City’s Ilana Glazer and Abbi Ja­cob­son have all pro­vided an over­due coun­ter­weight to the long line of dys­func­tional and com­pelling male leads who ruled tele­vi­sion. In Aus­tralia, there’s been the usual lag – Kath & Kim wound up a decade ago and there have been few dal­liances since. ( Ju­dith Lucy’s Spir­i­tual Jour­ney, and Marieke Hardy and Kirsty Fisher’s Laid come to mind.)

Then, in 2015, McLen­nan and McCart­ney’s The Ka­ter­ing Show pre­miered on YouTube. It was pro­moted as “the jour­ney of a food in­tol­er­ant and an in­tol­er­a­ble foodie”, its or­ange logo seem­ingly be­nign un­til you re­alise it in­cor­po­rates a colon. “We used to think that food in­tol­er­ances were the purview of at­ten­tion seek­ers,” McLen­nan says in their first episode.

“Or peo­ple who just wanted to jazz up their eat­ing dis­or­ders,” McCart­ney adds.

“But we were wrong,” says McLen­nan.

The duo was born, cast in the clas­sic TV-host­ing part­ner­ship. A TV cou­ple is a type­cast re­la­tion­ship that seems to re­quire as much PR de­fence per­son­nel as, say, the cou­ple in the White House. Con­sider the in­sis­tence of Amer­i­can To­day show host Katie Couric in a 2005 in­ter­view, as she de­fended her re­la­tion­ship with co-an­chor Matt Lauer: “I can tell you with com­plete hon­esty that my re­la­tion­ship with Matt hasn’t changed at all. We like and care about each other.” Sim­i­larly, McLen­nan and McCart­ney’s on­screen re­la­tion­ship is in a pres­sure cooker.

On The Ka­ter­ing Show, they are strained, short-fused and tired (re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to the dy­namic be­tween par­ents of a new­born, which in real life, the Kates were each ex­pe­ri­enc­ing), while at other times they are united, some­times in big­otry, or in scathing fury at the pol­i­tics of the day. They lam­poon food trends, fad di­ets and the broad claims typ­i­cal of cook­ing shows (“The Mex­i­can peo­ple are such a vi­brant and colour­ful peo­ple,” gushes McLen­nan as she pre­pares tor­tillas, “who have this amaz­ing lust for life”). In ‘The Body Is­sue’ episode, McCart­ney ex­plains the think­ing be­hind the pa­leo diet as McLen­nan skims the scum off a pot of boil­ing bone wa­ter to freeze into cubes. “Pa­leo devo­tees be­lieve that things re­ally went down­hill for hu­mans once we started farm­ing food,” she says.

“If only we could go back,” McLen­nan adds wist­fully. McCart­ney agrees. “Oh I know. I, for one, miss hav­ing non-con­sen­sual sex with Ne­an­derthals and be­ing fright­ened of the weather.”

Need­less to say, the show took off. Their ‘Ther­momix’ episode has so far clocked up two and a half mil­lion views on YouTube, while the ‘Yummy Mum­mies’ episode, in which McLen­nan chops up her (real) pla­centa, in­tro­duced a new word to the foodie lex­i­con, “plasagne”.

In 2016, ABC iView picked up “Sea­son­ing 2” of The Ka­ter­ing Show. The ar­range­ment clearly pre­ceded the re­cent ABC memo to its jour­nal­ists to re­main im­par­tial in the mar­riage equal­ity de­bate: in the ‘Ty­ing the Not’ episode, a viewer has writ­ten in and asked the duo to cater for her beach wed­ding, and the Kates can­not dis­guise their con­tempt.

“She [McCart­ney] is also a bi-sex­uAAL,” says McLen­nan. “Thanks, McLen­nan,” re­sponds McCart­ney drily. “And it seems [that] half of me is al­lowed to get mar­ried whilst ap­par­ently the other half isn’t.”

At the end of the episode, McLen­nan forces out some good cheer and wishes the viewer good luck. “I mean, re­ally gen­uinely, good luck with your wed­ding and mak­ing your mar­riage work.”

McCart­ney looks up sharply and adds, “Yeah, good luck, you het­eronor­ma­tive piece of shit.” It’s sav­age and de­li­cious. No more pussy­foot­ing around.

Now, with Get Krack!n, McLen­nan and McCart­ney have taken on morn­ing tele­vi­sion, a genre that largely orig­i­nated in mid ’70s Amer­ica when Good Morn­ing Amer­ica was pitched against the long­stand­ing To­day show. It’s the for­mat, de­ri­sively re­ferred to as “in­fo­tain­ment”, where tra­di­tional news an­chors were sup­planted by “per­son­al­i­ties” whose ap­proach to daily news was much like pick­ing over a tray of canapés. At the time, the much-trea­sured jour­nal­ist and broad­cast news an­chor Wal­ter Cronkite fe­ro­ciously op­posed the va­ri­ety-show ap­pli­ca­tion to tra­di­tional news as well as the huge pay pack­ets that saw the hosts turn into celebri­ties in their own right. In his mem­oir, A Re­porter’s Life (1996), Cronkite sur­mised that the “ex­plo­sively com­pressed head­line ser­vice of tele­vi­sion news can ex­pect to be ex­ploited by the dem­a­gogues and dic­ta­tors who prey upon the semi-in­formed”. Twenty years on, you could say Cronkite was sadly pre­scient.

In Jan­uary, New Yorker critic Emily Nuss­baum, who last year won the Pulitzer Prize for Crit­i­cism, wrote ‘How Jokes Won the Elec­tion’, an anal­y­sis of how locker-room hu­mour pre­vailed in the Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. In it, she re­ferred to the 20-year-old “proud ‘anti-po­lit­i­cal-cor­rect­ness’ sit­com” South Park. In 2015, and in its 19th sea­son, the com­edy dis­played de­press­ing fore­sight in pre­sent­ing a brash, lewd char­ac­ter run­ning for pres­i­dent on the plat­form of “fuck­ing im­mi­grants to death”. Co-cre­ators Trey Parker and Matt Stone found them­selves writ­ing a script and then watch­ing it align with real life over the next year, but while it was funny, the co-cre­ators had banked on Clin­ton win­ning. On elec­tion day, when it was clear Trump was go­ing to win, Parker and Stone had to re­write a 20th sea­son episode at light­ning speed. Sure, their plot had ini­tially pre­ceded Trump, but they were quickly over­taken. Trump was lit­er­ally the joke that had

“Half of me is al­lowed to get mar­ried whilst ap­par­ently the other half isn’t.”

gone too far. It was more than that, though, sur­mised Nuss­baum. South Park, she wrote, “was onto some­thing both pro­found and per­verse”. The pussy­foot­ing was over, but the pussy­grab­bers were fight­ing back.

The fight be­tween Trump and Clin­ton … could not be de­tached from the ex­plo­sion of fe­male com­edy: it found its roots in ev­ery­thing from the fe­male-cast “Ghost­busters” re­boot to the an­tifem­i­nist GamerGate move­ment. Trump’s call to Make Amer­ica Great Again was a plea to go back in time, to when peo­ple knew how to take a joke. It was an elec­tion about who owned the mike …

In Nuss­baum’s world, jokes post-elec­tion can no longer be seen as sharp knives, or the ul­ti­mate truth-tellers – they’ve be­come as murky as gaslight­ing and fake news. The pres­i­dent is an “in­sult comic” and a “sta­dium act”, and his brand is “con­trol”. “He was su­per­fi­cially loose, the wild man who might say any­thing,” she wrote, “yet his off-the-cuff mono­logues were al­ways be­ing tweaked as he tested catch­phrases (‘Lock her up!’; ‘Build the wall!’) for crowd re­sponse.” And as if the lines be­tween rat­ings, laughs and re­al­ity weren’t al­ready blurred enough, Trump and his fam­ily’s as­cen­dancy to the White House has taken fe­male com­edy deeper into a kind of gal­lows hu­mour.

Trump be­came pres­i­dent when the Kates were half­way through writ­ing Get Krack!n. “It was pretty over­whelm­ing,” McLen­nan tells me. The three of us are sit­ting in a tele­vi­sion stu­dio on a back­street in Mel­bourne’s in­ner north, and she and McCart­ney are de­scrib­ing how they had “con­sumed” the in­ter­net for ma­te­rial. All clicks be­ing equal, they had read with­out any sense of hi­er­ar­chy or order of im­por­tance.

“You’d read about Adani,” says McLen­nan.

“Then uni­corn hair,” adds McCart­ney.

“How to use a foam roller,” fin­ishes McLen­nan.

“Which is ex­actly what a morn­ing show does,” I say. “Yes, and the Trump cam­paign,” replies McLen­nan. “And him be­com­ing pres­i­dent,” says McCart­ney.

“To uni­corn hair?” I add.

“Yes,” say the Kates.

In­deed, if McLen­nan and McCart­ney have found them­selves in a much larger bat­tle, as Nuss­baum sug­gests, over who now “owns the mike”, they are well armed. As The Ka­ter­ing Show fans al­ready know, no mat­ter how ef­fort­less or airy their de­liv­ery may seem, they are very much locked and loaded. In a Get Krack!n cook­ing seg­ment (“Where we be­long!” sings McLen­nan), the Kates de­scribe to view­ers the types of men they al­ready ap­peal to as a mea­sure of their suc­cess. “On­line trolls …” says McLen­nan. “And older gen­tle­men,” adds McCart­ney, “who like to come up to us and ex­plain why we’re funny as if we were out pick­ing berries in the woods and stum­bled across a sack of jokes that we don’t un­der­stand.” There is a depth of fury, a sat­is­fy­ing “Fuck you” beneath al­most ev­ery line. Even their fun facts are bru­tal, such as this mem­o­rable one from The Ka­ter­ing Show: “Beet­roots are pota­toes filled with blood.”

As with The Ka­ter­ing Show (and other life­style pro­grams), seg­ment tran­si­tions of do­mes­tic minu­tiae fea­ture in Get Krack!n: the awk­ward act of plac­ing an elec­tric ket­tle back on its stand; the spray­ing of an al­most-dead maid­en­hair fern; the manic tear­ing of un­even strips of toi­let pa­per. Short and sharp, these segues have a thrust of anger be­hind them. Per­haps the Kates have taken a leaf out of Martha Rosler’s 1975 video piece, Semi­otics of the Kitchen, in which the artist stood, dead­pan in a drab kitchen, hold­ing up cook­ing uten­sils in al­pha­betic order, and demon­strat­ing the func­tion of each one in swift and sav­age move­ments.

Semi­otics of the Kitchen was in part a re­sponse to another Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion legacy, the Ju­lia Child food move­ment, fol­low­ing the mas­sive suc­cess of her cook­ing show The French Chef. In 1963 it was ground­break­ing that Child tasted her food with plea­sure and gusto. Pre­vi­ously, the fe­male cook was un­seen or ate spar­row-like while the men dug in. Child had an ap­petite. But as with most shat­tered fe­male moulds, this lib­er­a­tion was short-lived, with women sim­ply awak­ing to new con­fines. Yes, the woman in the kitchen was no longer un­seen and she could eat as she pleased (as long as she main­tained her­self) but now peo­ple wanted to watch her.

McLen­nan and McCart­ney on Get Krack!n are show­ing women their “new digs”. As McCart­ney tells view­ers, they have taken the ac­tion “out of the The Ka­ter­ing Show kitchen, and into other parts of the house, like the toi­let and the hostage crawl space”. Get Krack!n not only shows their view­ers how to spruce up the san­i­tary bin but also, in another se­quence, how a mod­ern woman lays out her work at­tire for the day: blouse, skirt, blazer, gas mask and sword.

In­fo­tain­ment is an over­stuffed for­mula. Its hosts graze “fresh facts” and rapidly re­ar­range their faces, some­what psy­chot­i­cally, to suit each topic in three-minute blocks. In this, Get Krack!n is true to form. After the Kates set­tle on the grey couch, McLen­nan tells view­ers that their celebrity guest is Sam Neill! McLen­nan’s face is a pic­ture of de­mented joy as she does a Jurassic Park–style di­nosaur imi­ta­tion, be­fore abruptly switch­ing to a solemn tone and ex­plain­ing that he’ll be talk­ing about as­sisted sui­cide. It is un­nerv­ing.

“But first up on Get Krack!n,” McCart­ney cries, “it’s time to get booty woke with DJ Juice!”

The Kates get off the couch, tug­ging down their hems, and head over to their very own DJ, par­o­dy­ing Amer­i­can

talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres’ in-house DJ and fa­mous danc­ing with her au­di­ence. “Woo hoo!” says McLen­nan, danc­ing awk­wardly.

“Here we go-oh!” re­sponds McCart­ney, sway­ing – but soon she calls it quits, rub­bing her creak­ing knees. It is a scene that strikes a chord – rem­i­nis­cent of a hens’ party you didn’t want to be at, danc­ing to ‘Stay­ing Alive’ or ‘Nut­bush City Lim­its’ but feel­ing dead in­side.

“C’mon, we’re be­ing fun,” McLen­nan says, try­ing to coax McCart­ney to join in again. Her de­liv­ery is so breezy you al­most miss the sucker punch. C’mon, we’re be­ing fun. It is im­pos­si­ble not to snort in star­tled laugh­ter at the ac­cu­racy of their par­ody.

In­evitably, the genre and “dead leg” times­lot be­gin to suf­fo­cate the on­screen Kates. McLen­nan’s smile is painfully seared on, scrab­ble-tile teeth grind­ing in anx­i­ety as she shov­els warmth into her eyes like an ac­tor on Home and Away. The chirpier, more en­thu­si­as­tic that McLen­nan is, the more neg­a­tive and dry McCart­ney tends to be­come, only to see­saw into a gen­er­ous, fluid host when McLen­nan frays. In­evitably there is a Shop­per’s Korner, and guests (aka Kracksperts) who join the hosts for seg­ments such as MediKate, Get Kraftin’ and Klothes Rack (the hi­lar­i­ous sarong seg­ment with co­me­dian Anne Ed­monds is worth a Gold Lo­gie in it­self). There are news bul­letins with head­lines such as “a woman was shot in the face by a man”, rap­per Adam Briggs as “the weather girl” and ev­ery­thing else that morn­ing shows stuff them­selves stupid with, the Kates run­ning be­tween the seg­ments. Des­per­a­tion and mis­ery rise off them and it’s per­fect.

“One of us is Karl, one of us is Lisa,” McLen­nan tells me, “and one of us is Kochie, one of us is Mel,” re­fer­ring to the hosts on Aus­tralia’s To­day and Sun­rise shows. There’s a strange irony in the Kates do­ing po­lite press to pro­mote Get Krack!n, as if they’ve found them­selves stuck in­side their own joke. Back in 2015, they ap­peared on Chan­nel 7’s Sun­rise to pro­mote The Ka­ter­ing Show. “That was very strange,” re­calls McCart­ney. “I don’t think they’ll have us back with Get Krack!n.”

There is a mag­netism be­tween McLen­nan and McCart­ney as they riff off each other. Both 37 years old, each with a two-year-old, when asked about their kids they stare at each other as they speak. Their chil­dren, they tell me, are at the same day-care cen­tre.

“It’s quite clean,” says McCart­ney.

“What’s re­ally good about it …” adds McLen­nan.

“… is that they had avail­abil­ity,” says McCart­ney. “They’re do­ing this thing at the mo­ment,” McLen­nan con­tin­ues, “where they’re tri­alling the kids sleep­ing out­side.” “It’s an Ice­landic thing,” says McCart­ney. “Es­sen­tially …” “Ap­par­ently …” says McLen­nan.

“Fresh air makes them sleep bet­ter.”

“Does it work?” I ask. “No,” they say at the same time.

“It’s at an in­ter­sec­tion, trucks go­ing past,” ex­plains McLen­nan.

“A mo­bile phone tower,” adds McCart­ney.

“Two mo­bile phone tow­ers,” cor­rects McLen­nan.

“It’s not the fuck­ing tun­dra,” fin­ishes McCart­ney.

The Kates have a caus­tic hard­ness about them, a tal­ent for pul­veris­ing one-lin­ers. But still, I ask, in light of their show­biz ex­pe­ri­ence – McLen­nan mock­ingly refers to her­self as a “trained thes­pian” while McCart­ney started out on tele­vi­sion be­fore work­ing in pro­duc­tion – have they ever found them­selves in the kind of role they’re now mak­ing fun of? Both Kates go quiet, think­ing.

McCart­ney nods. “I think we’ve both played women we don’t res­onate with,” she says care­fully. Both au­di­tioned to be one of the “Philly An­gels”, she re­calls, for a cream-cheese com­mer­cial in the ’90s. Then out of the cracks of her mem­ory McLen­nan re­mem­bers an au­di­tion she did in her early 20s.

“I did an au­di­tion once where I had to wear a pa­per bag on my head.”

McCart­ney and I stare at her.

“It was for an AFL com­mer­cial,” she con­tin­ues. “Noooooo!” we scream.

McLen­nan tries to ex­plain. “The premise was that the sup­port­ers would be wear­ing face paint, and the peo­ple get­ting the tapes couldn’t vi­su­alise what your face would look like with face paint on so they needed …” She fal­ters. “Well, they needed you to wear a pa­per bag so they could put it to­gether in their brains what you looked like.” She trails off.

McCart­ney and I stare at her. Then McCart­ney shakes her head. “What are you …? Fuck! What are you talk­ing about?”

“Maybe …” McLen­nan says slowly, her eyes kind of wide now. “Maybe it wasn’t that at all.”

“Did the bag have eyes in it?” I ask.

“No, I don’t think so,” says McLen­nan.

“What were they do­ing, McLen­nan?” de­mands McCart­ney. “What were they do­ing in front of you?”

McLen­nan shakes her head slowly. “I don’t know.” We look at one another in dis­be­lief and then burst into laugh­ter. The well here is deep, I think to my­self. The friend­ship is, too. It’s rare but you can catch a glimpse of it on­screen, in be­tween the sniper fire. At the end of the ‘Mex­i­cana Fes­tiana’ episode of The Ka­ter­ing Show, the two Kates sit in a gut­ter in the dark on an empty sub­ur­ban street, try­ing to de­pict the fab­u­lous street life of Mex­ico. As al­ways, McCart­ney calls it quits first. She gets up to walk away but then turns to McLen­nan, of­fer­ing her hand. “Oh, buddy! You look like you’re in your sec­ond trimester over there,” she says, and there’s a gen­uine chuckle from McLen­nan as McCart­ney helps her out of the gut­ter.

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