From writing comedy reviews featuring environmentalism-based puns at Gippsland Grammar to performing stand-up shows touting Wil-based puns – there are not many forms of broadcasting that comedian, television, radio and podcast host, and producer, Wil Anderson hasn’t enhanced with his sharp, observational humour.
Recently, Gippslandia shared a relaxed chat with the comic on his roots in Sale and what he’s learnt from over 20 years of stand-up comedy.
Can give us a little bit of background of growing up near Sale?
My parents are from Denison—a little farming community outside of Heyfield. They live on Anderson Road, which is named after my Grandfather. Dad was born on that road. I’m 44-years-old, so he’s lived there for 74 years. My brother, Ross, is on the farm.
I went to Heyfield Primary School and ended up at Sale Grammar School. I sat a scholarship test, so they paid some of my high school education. That was pretty amazing, as it gave me a great opportunity to go to a school that, perhaps, my parents wouldn’t have been able to afford.
Where did you first start performing? Where did you begin gigging?
The best thing about the Grammar School was the access to the arts… in about Year Nine they entered the National Theatre Sports competition. We competed against schools in Sale and Bairnsdale, and were lucky enough go to the final at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne… Performing there, a bit of me was like, ‘All of this is pretty great fun’.
I was a young precocious kid, and I decided that I was going to take over the house drama program…So we had auditions and I wrote to their capabilities. Of course, I gave myself all the major lines. Completely unbiased. The first one was called, ‘Gunfight at the Ozone Corral’. It was like a western theme based around environmentalism and the ozone layer. The next year it was called, ‘Murder on the Ozone Express’. We won those drama competitions and I began thinking, ‘Alright, maybe I do have a sense of how to entertain an audience’.
But I went to uni in Canberra and did journalism. Remember, this was twenty-five years ago and the idea of being a comedian wasn’t really something that anyone did as a job. It was like running away to join the circus.
I didn’t really do any theatre or comedy in university but kept a keen interest in comedy. I graduated first in my course and had been working as a journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, and I was just really unhappy. l should’ve been looking at my life thinking, ‘You’re doing well at this’.
My boss gave me a really bit of good advice. ‘Go and find something that you really love to do’. I moved back to Melbourne and spent about six months working other jobs before I ever really threw my feet into comedy.
I started seeing shows all the time. I’d see people like Greg Fleet, Judith Lucy, the Empty Pockets, The Doug Anthony All-Stars, Lano and Woodley and Sue-Ann Post. I loved Wendy Harmer and Anthony Morgan. But if Oasis wrote songs like The Beatles or Wolfmother wanted to be Led Zeppelin, then certainly my style, my stage presence and my point of view was massively influenced by Greg Fleet at the time. I was obviously starting to think, ‘How do I involve myself in this?’.
They used to run a Sunday ‘Open Mic’ at the Espy in St Kilda. This was going to be my gig. I went three weeks in a row and decided that you probably remembered the person who was the most shit and who was second most shit, but by the time you got to third or fourth most shit, they blurred into everybody else. I knew I wasn’t going to be the best, but as long as I could be the third or fourth most shit, maybe I could give it a go.
I did my first spot there. I had a routine about being on the dole, ‘cause I was at that stage, and some jokes about the TV show Gladiators, which was big at the time.
Everyone thinks that your first gig will go shit, but by combining the fact that it’s your first gig and the energy that brings out – it kind of works. My second gig was absolutely terrible and that could’ve been the end of it. I remember going, ‘Ah well I gave it a go. One went really great. One went really terrible. Now, for the rest of my life at dinner parties, I’ll be able to tell people that I tried stand-up once’.
A friend said, ‘Well, technically, you should at least get a tiebreaker. You’ve done one good and one bad gig. Why don’t you do a third one?’ I did it, and it went well enough.
Twenty-two years later, I have no other employable skills.
Coming back to journalism. You have your books, radio, TV and podcasts. What do you think you’ve gained from working across a wide range of media?
It’s funny, isn’t it? I always think that I just do comedy, but comedy can be broadcast in many different ways.
Sometimes people don’t quite get comedy. I’m often asked, ‘How do you go from doing big theatre shows to going overseas and starting again?’. People struggle to accept that you’d go from a big thing to a little thing. But you’re always just producing comedy. Whether it’s for a podcast, radio show, TV show or a book. It can be Twitter or YouTube too. I only ever think of where would be the best forum or best way for me to distribute or explore that idea.
It really does seem that you’re aware of the right medium to deliver the message…
The thing is, I know fucking nothing. How would I know anything? I’m just a kid from Denison. I don’t have any great knowledge about any of these things.
Weirdly, if you hang around long enough, and if a few of your things go well enough, people think that you know things. Sometimes that can be a dangerous thing in itself—the idea that other people think you know things, and that you start to believe that you know things.
Putting a Gruen (The Gruen Transfer, ABC) episode together, as a team, I’m the boss and if we’re having a debate over something and we need a decision, it’s my decision. That’s why they pay me a certain amount of money. Yet, I’ll always say, ‘Well. This is how I think we should do it. But it’s just my best guess’. That’s all it ever is – my best guess. I don’t have some secret book of comedy, wisdom or advice. I just try to listen to other people and listen to the audience.
What do you put the continued success of Gruen down to?
That’s a mystery of its own. There’s a whole bunch of things. It’s rare to have the opportunity to do something that’s truly original and we’ve gotten that because of Andrew Denton and Jon Casimir, who came up with the idea. Andrew said, ’We want to make a show that gives people the tools to understand advertising in the way that Frontline (TV show) gave the tools to understand current affairs shows’’.
We workshopped with people from the advertising industry and realised, ‘People don’t know them and they’ve all got interesting brains. Let’s hear from the experts!’. It’s a hard concept to get industry people on a show where they’re going to be dissecting, sometimes pissing off and making fun of their own industry. That doesn’t happen without the power of Andrew Denton. Plus, he could convince the ABC to make a show about advertising. Not many other places in the world have somebody like the ABC. It’s very hard to make a show like Gruen and then go sell an ad for a major bank, when you’ve just ripped them apart.
It’s the ABC’s most successful show and we give them 10 episodes a year. If we were on Channel 7 or 9 we’d be doing twenty a year or twenty-five a year. It’d be on every fucking night of the week, like The Project.
Gruen has become, to a certain extent, my show; as what you see is a fair indication of what I want the show to be. At the start, it wasn’t. It was someone else’s show that I came into – contributing and hosting. The funny thing is that it uses a whole bunch of my skills; my journalism and research skills, my idea of structure, and my fascination with how we’re sold to. It’s also an advertising show hosted by somebody who deplores and detests advertising.
When we started, the industry rule of thumb was the average person saw 3000 commercials a day. Ten years later, advertising and marketing are so much more entwined with our world. The world has changed to make Gruen a more interesting show. People have stuck with it because it still has a compelling story to tell. And we’re doing better at being able to tell that story.
It feels as though you’ve been more vocal about your support for medicinal marijuana (which Wil uses to address his debilitating osteoarthritis). Is it difficult for you to be more visible on the topic?
I wrote my first routine on marriage equality about seventeen or eighteen years ago. Every year I had a different piece about marriage equality and none of it helped. My voice isn’t changing anything.
Gruen has been a great blessing in my life, but there are negatives too; one is that I can’t endorse anything. Gruen is about advertising and marketing, so one person has to be free of conflicts. I can tell you what I personally think about something, like medicinal marijuana. It’s the same with talking about refugee policy or whatever, but I probably can’t speak from an official place.
That’s not the worst thing, because so many things aren’t black and white. Whereas, when you’re a human, talking about what you believe in, you can have more grey area. I tend to live my life a lot more in the grey area.
I believe in medicinal marijuana, I probably believe in legalising marijuana, if we’re going to legalise alcohol. But I see downsides. There’s a whole bunch of scientific studies that show you really shouldn’t smoke pot until you’re 30 and your brain’s developed. If I was going to be an ambassador for legalising marijuana, my caveat would be, but only after 30.
It’s great that as a stand-up and a comedian, you have the capacity to not only just go, ‘Hey this is my personal opinion’, but you’re able to change your mind and explain to people why you’ve changed.
When you were on Triple J, presenting Breakfast with Adam Spencer, I remember reading in Monster Children that you’d rather cut into the belly of something to get some sleep, than do breakfast radio again.
I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’d be so tired in the middle of the day that if I met Nelson Mandela, I’d be like, ‘Hey Nellie, you’ve done good things for the world but if I stabbed you to death right now, I could sleep on your warm corpse’.
So… I’m back doing breakfast radio again. The good news is I don’t have that tired period now. Often, at Triple J, when we started at 6 am, we certainly hadn’t been to bed the night before. If you’re young, ambitious and want something to go well, you tend to go 100 percent at everything.
Now, I wanted to do something that wasn’t my own thing. Typically, I’m the host of something or the producer or its stand-up and podcasts. You’re essentially putting all of you into it. I’ve never really done a job where you’re doing someone else’s thing – playing a certain role. There’s a great joy in working with your friends too.
The new radio show (Triple M Hot Breakfast), and Gruen has taught me there’s a very different joy and challenge when you’re working with people who aren’t comedians or aren’t necessarily of your world experience. It’s made me creative in unique ways that I wasn’t previously. Also, I’ll have to use my journalistic skills and I’m gonna have to find a way to make things that aren’t naturally comedic, funny.
What do you think could be done to benefit regional youth?
It’s connection, isn’t it? Having a high-speed connection for the country is more important than anywhere else.
When I grew up in the country we didn’t have the Internet, and we didn’t even have Triple J. I was a kid who liked The Cure, The Smiths and the Beastie Boys and you might find one other kid at school who you liked them. You’d often feel like you were quite alone. These days you can feel a bit more connected. In a really practical, infrastructure sense, and it’s something that I bang on about all the time, you don’t need to build highways if you’re building information superhighways, right?
It was just so hard as a kid in the country to find other kids who were like you, if you were different in any way, and to feel that you weren’t alone. Access to affordable high-speed communication is a massive starting point for a regional Australia, let alone regional Victoria.
After all these all these years observing people. Is there anything that surprises you or is it just that humans are incredibly absurd?
I guess if you expect that everything will surprise you then nothing surprises you, right? The complexity of human beings… I guess it’s very natural as you get older to understand it…
The commentary regarding the marriage equality postal survey suggested it was a surprise that regional Australia had been so supportive. That didn’t really surprise me at all. My experience has been that if it comes to homophobia, race or whatever, when you’re in a country community, if someone moves in, they become part of the community. That’s just part of the country life. The support for marriage equality makes a lot of sense. Whereas, often in cities, you don’t actually need to integrate.
I’m not just surprised by people, but often pleasantly surprised by people. This frequently means less about them, and more about you. Often when you’re surprised by something it just means that you haven’t spent enough time working out what was really going on.