Sunday, April 26, 2020

Sketch comedy and a tale of public failure from the deep past

Last November, I was part of a four-person live show put on by The (un)Australian, with "Abbott impersonator" Jonas Holt, Mark Williamson and Peter Green. The Unoz done a few shows with at comedy festivals or on our own since 2015, but this is the first one to be filmed. (The trailer is above and you can get the full thing here.)

As it was filmed as recently as November, it is only two huge, society shaking, history changing crises in the past. But what the show lacks in reflecting the actual times and political context (having  changed drastically twice in under six months), it makes up for in the fact I had a lot of fun. Forget the audience, we were entertained.

I've done a couple of solo shows of stand up for which there is footage or audio around, but I like this show because I really like sketch comedy. I like it a lot more than stand up, I grew up Australian and British sketch shows. When I started doing live performance comedy in 2011, I only did stand up because it was what was available to do.

And if there is one thing I really like in comedy, that sketch is a perfect format for, it is a double act. The whole odd couple dynamic, irritating each other, often one uptight and/or smart the other laid back and/or dumb... Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Julian Barrett and Noel Fielding, David Mitchell and Robert Webb.

So I love the fact that through The (un)Australian, I've been able to do a runing series of two-hander sketches with Peter Green, who has been doing comedy since the 80s and despite working on such iconic, groundbreaking shows as "Australia's Funniest Home Videos" is an underrated comedy writer. Still, his enjoyment of taunting me to the point of breaking in these sketches borders on the unnatural.

My first experience of live performance of sketch comedy, of a sort, in what was, I guess, a double act of a sort... did not go well. Gather round which ever screen you are sort of reading while mostly scrolling instagram on and I tell a story that features two dumb 18 year old males, a lot of alcohol and soul-destroying public humiliation of the sort that stops you performing publicly for 16 years.


The year is 1995. Man landed on the Moon just 26 years earlier, I was just out of high school and the whole world seemed about 25 years away from civilisation collapse. With a school friend equally obsessed with Monty Python in that predictably dull way teenage boys often are, I tried to write sketch comedy.

We wanted to perform our works of genius but had no idea where to begin... until  we came across a live comedy competition anyone could enter that was to be held on Rottnest Island, off the coast of Perth where we lived.

This was our chance but we had issues. Mainly that we weren't any good.

Add to that, my friend was... well very earnest, which you might think is an issue when it comes to doing comedy and you'd be right.

I'll call him "Ryan" because that was his name. The sketch Ryan insisted we do was what was basically a children's story he'd written that was whimsical and had a clear, easy to grasp moral.

It wasn't too bad for what it was, really -- imaginative and a bit silly. But what it wasn't, by any stretch of the imagination, was something that was going to win over a  boisterous and drunken live crowd.

In this particular piece, a narrator reads a fable of a young vampire who gets attacked because his evil laugh makes him sound like a seagull. It was called... OH GOD HELP US... "Percy the Persecuted Vampire".

Ryan was the narrator, I was the vampire. I perfected the "evil laugh morphing into the ugly cawing of a sea gull". I can probably still do it today, which is one of the least useful skills you could ever bring with you from your younger days.

The bit also included a series of bad puns and I think it even had a happy ending when the characters learned to accept the vampire for who he was... OH GOD HELP US... but it is all a blur.

We were nervous. We'd performed this infont of a handful of politie but bemused friends of Ryan's parents, but this was different.

We were also budding alcoholics. And for some reason, the organisers on Rottnest put the performers in this room behind a makeshift stage that was actually just a bar that was closed that night.

The bar was closed, but beer still flowed in its pipes. OH GOD HELP US.

Once we discovered you could pour yourself a free beer and there was no one to stop you, we poured one after the other as we drowned our nerves in free beer. I say drowned, but it was more a massacre.

All the while, we were in this room with other performers and I was dressed in full costume shop hired vampire costume while outside the night was getting underway.

The MCs were Shaun Micallef and Julia Morris, who were both in 90s TV sketch show Full Frontal at the time. Of course, today one of them is a host of the hilarious satirical show Survivor and the other hosts the reality TV show Mad as Hell. And of course both saw me be humiliated in public.

The main thing I remember about the actual show ... less as a picture-postcard image, more as a rising tide of deep emotional distress ... is the crowd.

I have never seen a crowd at a comedy show like this, not at any of the comedy rooms I've performed or watch comedy in. It may be that in those days, crowds were generally wilder, but the best way to describe the crowd this night was "a drunken lynch mob".

I mostly remember a wild, menancing ocean of boozey, aggro blokes whose attitude to anyone on stage was that of predators towards a cornered victim.

Most acts struggled and the restless crowd was getting more and more worked up. Then we came on. Two 18-year-olds with a "whimsical" story to "entertain" them. And I was dressed up as a vampire called Percy.

We were also really, really, really drunk. God, in all His infinite wisdom, could do nothing to help us.

We did our best. I really did the best damn "vampire whose evil laugh makes him sound a bit like a sea gull" impersonation I possibly could.

It went as well as you'd expect, if what you expected was a mob of drunks chanting "Percy's a wanker! Percy's a wanker!" until we fled the stage mid-act.

As Julia Morris trundled back up to continue MCing, she smiled ruefully and said, "Some nights they just don't want to listen." It was a nice gesture when, understandly, most other people involved were  avoiding all eye-contact.

Going back stage after that, we weren't feeling great, but on the other hand, back stage had free beer! We almost drank enough to undo the deep psychological damage being driven off stage, not with rotten fruit but with a large collective of people loudly and publicly declaring that you are, in fact "a wanker". Almost.

I guess we all process trauma in particular ways. Drinking heavily since getting driven off stage, at some point myself and Ryan stumbled around trying to find a toilet, and came across this kid who was maybe 10 or so and he asked us, sheepishly, "Were you the ones who did that vampire story?" We said yes and he said "I really liked it."

Again, that was a nice gesture. One that caused my very earnest friend, who had written that bit with its heavy handed moral that got us more booed off stage, turned to me and said with a straight face: "You know, sometimes it's the children who understand."

Did I mention he was very earnest?

While my memory is most acts struggled that night (though no one as badly as us), there was one guy who actually won the crowd. He managed to get them onside with this really clever trick called "telling funny jokes". I have no idea why we didn't think of that, masdies from the fact we didn't have any.

He was a large bloke with a wild mop of hair and an Irish accent as thick as his bushy beard. He told the jokes deadpan, making winning over that crowd even more impressive, and I loved his jokes so much I can still remember some 25 years later (I can't remember a single line from our bit).

I remember him saying in his Irish brogue, deadpan, that he didn't understand personalised number plates: "I saw one the other day that said '007'. What was I meant to think? 'Oh there goes James Bond. In a Datsun.'"

It was Dave Callan, who is a great stand up making his living performing today (he was on Rove's TV show a few years back and had a Triple J, but his Facebook page alone proves his worth). He easily won the competition that night. I also remember him being friendly after our humiliation, talking to us very on the ferry back that night, encouraging us to have a go at performing at some comedy night in Perth he was involved with.

We did not take him up. It was 16 years till I tried to perform comedy in public again, stand up this time in what I consider my "first ever gig" in a bid to pretend 1995 never happened.

Any way, the most important thing is that, after the last Unoz show, now one felt the need to turn to me and decalare: "At least the children get it."

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Now that Ken Burns doco has proven that quality country music is actually awesome, here is my country music playlist

"Country music doesn’t deserve its right-wing reputation — its roots lie with the hopes and travails of working people." So wrote left-wing music critic Alexander Billet in Jacobin Magazine in a piece Jacobin published that is almost enough to wipe away Jacobin's horrific, unspeakable Merle Haggard obit (but still not enough... that was shocking).

Still, if there is one thing too-cool-for-school kids of all ages love, it is making jokes about how uncool "country and western" is. Stupid hats and suits and rednecks singing corny cliches in an irritating whine interupting only by yodelling and a whole gamut of ultra-conservative views. You know, just like the country music that Johnny Cash is so infamous for.

So when Trump was first elected 3000 years ago (or "in 2016" if believe in conventional measurements of time, which I no longer do), a friend posted on facebook that the "worst thing" would be "all the country and western music". 

Get it? Ignorant rednecks voted for Trump and they listen to country and western! HAHAHAHA if we get nothing out this nightmare we at least get hilarious jokes like that!

As no one has actually seriously used the phrase "country and western" to describe country music anytime in the past 70 years, use of the phrase "country and western" is a dead give away that someone just repeating mindless prejudices against one of genres of popular music that has proven, over decades, in multiples waves, to be a wonderfully literate, profound, poetic and grounded form of popular music, rooted in the real experiences of ordinary people. 

I mean for god's sake, look at country music legend John Prine who sadly just died from the virus and he was all that to every inch. 

Of course, there is plenty labelled country music that is shit, cliched and absurd. This stuff is generated and sold by corporate record companies and played on corporate radio stations and it is manufactored and pointless and sometimes gets truly, insanely, mindnumbingly lame (search "bro country" on youtube... I dare you).

But imagining that kind of stuff is the essence of country music is like imagining Vanilla Ice is the essence of hip hop. 

The whole use of genres is pretty articifial to begin with. Most musicians cross over to some extent and all the genres to emerge in the 20th centruy of North America have common roots in the melting pots of cultures from Africa and the Europe, brewed in poverty and exploited by those with money to sell records. 

"Country" (or hillbilly music as it was first known) was sold to white audiences, "blues" was sold to Black audiences, but both emerged as fluid mix of the musical and story-telling traditions from Africa and European nations like Scotland and Ireland. The influence of Black musicians on country and non-white country musicians gets written out of its official history, but the genre still remains very popular to play and listen to among Native Americans and Aboriginal communities in Australia to this day.

Does it really matter if people reject "country music" on a false basis? Probably not, except you see people that you know, based on their other musical preferrences, would actually really like a lot of country music if they just let themselves. They are missing out. 

A great antidote to stupid cultural prejudices is the Country Music documentary series by acclaimed US film-maker Ken Burns, which is screening on SBS. It has been justly hailed as a brilliant social history of not just the genre of country music but US society and popular culture in the 20th century.

Those who already loved country music love the series, those who thought they hated it love the series. 

It;s good, but as good as it is, it doesn't answer the question everyone wants to know: "If Carlo Sands was going to put together a playlist giving an overview of country music he likes, what 35 songs would he choose?"

And I am delighted to be able to answer... THESE 35 SONGS!!! ON MY COUNTRY MUSIC PLAYLIST!!!

I've had a variation on this list for like the past half dozen years or so, but keep changing it. It is very sort of an introduction to country music but is examples of the stuff within the broad church I like, which leans heavily to the "poetic singer/songwriter" wing that often gets called "" or "Americana" but is far truer to country music's origins than anything ever released by Garth Brooks. It starts with some classics, missing many, then on to those from a bumbper crop of high quality songs from 21st century artists

Anyway, I've got two versions, the longer version that is 35 songs long and then the shorter and sharper one I've somehow cut down to 25 songs. All sorts of worthy artistis are not on it. This is not "the best of country music" just a sample of the shit I like. Both lists are 50/50 male and female singers, whicb no doubt underplays the role of female singers in the genre. Comment with what is missing in the comment section if you must.