Tony Martin - Bad Behaviour And The Art Of Comedy Gold
I'd like to say that Tony Martin has forgotten more about radio than I'll ever know, but I don't think that's true because I'm pretty sure he doesn't forget things. The man's mind is brilliant. But you know this already. However, in case you've been living under a rock and the rock doesn't have wifi so you can't google him, I'll bring you up to speed. Tony Martin is a New Zealand actor, writer, comedian and all round creative genius. He isn't a national treasure, he's two national treasures rolled into one. Because as far as us Aussies are concerned, an alleged kiwi with this much talent could only have come straight outta Melbourne, the city he now calls home.
Prolific doesn't even begin to describe Tony's body of work. If you or I had done just half the things that he's done in radio alone we would be justifiably hailed as gods. From the ground breaking D-Gen breakfast show and the genre defining Martin/Molloy, to the sketch driven smash hit Get This, he's certainly dabbled a bit on the old FM dial.
The scary part is that his conquest of radio is merely one facet of a star studded career. But regardless of Mr. Martin's other achievements in movies, TV shows, podcasting, writing novels and stand up comedy, it is my sworn duty as a radio tragic to ensure the conversation never strays too far from my favourite medium. Luckily when Tony and I talked he was only too happy to oblige, handing out pearls of wireless wisdom like they were icy cold cans of coke from the back of a Black Thunder.
Tony, Sizzletown is a brilliant podcast and some of your finest work. My only problem with it is that I can't call in to win some cold hard caaaash. Could you be lured back into full time commercial radio and what would that show look like in terms of time slot, format and lineup?
Thanks! Matt Dower and I love doing Sizzletown and, as a result, probably put way too much work into it. It’s really just a development of the very production-heavy radio I was doing in the eighties (with The D-Generation), the nineties (with Martin/Molloy) and the noughties (with Get This - which Matt was a key part of too, of course). There isn’t much call for that kind of radio any more - although there wasn’t much call for those shows at the time. They all transformed from ‘cult’ shows into big mainstream successes to the surprise of everyone, including us. With sketches - and by that, I include fake ads, cut up interviews, all the 'bells and whistles’ stuff I like to do - you need access to a lot of production time. A bit that goes two minutes can sometimes take a couple of days to build. Listeners love them, but radio people - especially in the current ‘belt-tightening’ era - don’t see it as a sensible use of time. And they’re probably right! I am into my fifth year with ‘Chrissie Sam and Browny’ on Nova in Melbourne, and because it’s only one day a week, I still have time to do other things like stand-up, books and podcasts. And it’s such a great show to be a part of - that team are at the top of their game - that I can’t imagine doing a better one myself. Sizzletown doesn’t pay much, but on the other hand, I don’t have to go to meetings with the two arse-clowns we were working under when we did Get This.
Your landmark radio show Get This from the mid noughties was a content hungry beast. I find that when I'm writing funny scripts for radio on a daily basis I do get a form of momentum going, but there's a fine line between momentum and mayhem. Do you have any writing tips for maintaining that amount of gear on a show?
I always say the key to that show, and the earlier ones, is that I didn’t - and don’t - have kids. I could selfishly devote almost every waking moment to what is now called ‘content creation’. I know people who can juggle kids with comedy, but I am a slower worker than many and couldn’t do that myself. As people who do a daily show always point out, it eats up every idea you have and still needs more, more and then still more. I could never have done a show like Get This half-arsed. When I think of that show, I think of eating dinner with one hand and fast-forwarding through the Channel Ten news with the other, looking for weird grabs. There was no time off and no short-cut way to do it. It helps if you are part of a team, like I was on the breakfast show, and can share the tasks around, but with Get This, while Ed and Richard were contributing brilliant stuff every day, writing the sketch parts was all on me. It was relentless, and you had to be extremely disciplined about how you parcelled up the hours in the day. You can go too far with that, of course. It is perhaps no coincidence that shortly after Get This, I got divorced!
I love the story you tell about knowing it's time to walk out of a TV show pitch when the TV exec starts talking about how he wishes your script had 'likeable' characters instead of selfish and flawed ones. Because as you rightly point out, those selfish behaviours are where the true comedy gold lies. I might be drawing a long bow here, but does that speak to the feeling of entertainment people get from listening to certain famous shock jocks versus slightly lesser rating 'nice people' ?
As I discovered when we pitched ‘Childproof’, most executives know nothing about script-writing or character-creation. Almost without exception, they were worried that no-one would like the somewhat selfish characters. No amount of citing examples like Homer Simpson or George Costanza or Fleabag or Larry David and so on to infinity could persuade them otherwise. There are plenty of scriptwriting books that can explain the fallacy of ‘likeability’ better than I could. Asking whether the characters are going to be ‘likeable’ is like a safety net for people who don’t know how drama, let alone comedy, works. Audiences can smell when they’re being sucked up to. Shows full of likeable characters are almost always bland and forgettable. Was Tony Soprano likeable? Of course not - he was a murderer - but audiences could empathise with him. With a man who can’t control his kids and whose life is spiralling out of control. By the way, I’m not suggesting that ‘Childproof’ was of the same quality as any of the shows I have cited here. As for the 'shock jocks', I think that’s a different phenomenon. There are a lot of angry people out there who feel powerless. They like to hear someone going off in a way they can’t at their own workplace. Personally, I find most of them repulsive - almost to a man (and it’s always a man), they are magnets for bullying complaints. The most popular ones seem genuinely psychopathic. Like Tony Soprano!
In an interview you once described comedy sketch writing as 'A bunch of scientists all sitting around in a room', a drab yet no doubt accurate portrayal. Regardless of commercial success, which project has been the most fun one to work on in your career? Or is fun not an option when you put your game face on?
Just last weekend, I did some stand-up shows in Orange NSW with the very funny Akmal Saleh. The shows were very raucous and a huge amount of fun. Afterwards, several audience members approached us and were surprised - and disappointed - to discover that we are both fairly quiet, nerdish types who spend a lot of time crafting the moments that these people had assumed we were coming up with off the tops of our heads. It was like someone had told them that Santa isn’t real. That’s pretty standard for comedy. The hilarious party animal type at your work who everyone says is so funny he should be a comedian, in most instances, wouldn’t last five minutes on the stand-up circuit. I have seen this happen time and time again. As for fun, Get This, despite all the work that went into it, was probably the most fun one to do. That team - Ed, Richard, Nikki, Matt and Cecelia - plus all the hilarious co-hosts - was such a fun team to work with, and with the live-to-air parts, I was deliberately trying to be looser than I had been on previous shows. To go with Ed’s mad ideas rather than stick with the scripted stuff. Because I had prepared a lot of material, I knew that I could always bust out the prepared stuff to give the segment a proper ending, if required. But Ed was such a treat to work with because he was never lost for words or crazy examples of things. He was the one who gave that show its life.
Whether it's crafting the next talk break, creating a sketch, or making imaging, writing funny radio content can be difficult for the rest of us mere mortals. If you had to give us just one tip or method to go from blank page to getting the ball rolling, what would it be?
My answer to this is always ‘write everything down’. So many little moments happen during your day that most people - including myself - often don't realise can be turned into material later. Radio (and podcasting) is the best medium for examining, highlighting, and expanding upon the trivial. TV shows need big ideas, but radio thrives on little ideas magnified, often to an absurd degree. You can never take enough notes. This goes for stand-up too. And, when you’re short of an idea, always turn the spotlight on yourself. Your own worst behaviour or thoughts are usually where the comedy gold lies.