Well known as a stand up comedian and as the host of the ABC’s popular programme ‘The Gruen Transfer’, Wil Anderson will bring his unique blend of humour and keen observation skills to the Glasshouse this month. His new show, ‘Man vs Wil’, promises a great evening’s entertainment
Hi Wil. I read somewhere that it was actually a performance by Billy Connolly that prompted you to think you, too, could become a stand up comedian?
I don’t think it actually prompted me to think I could be one … because I guess that would be like saying you could see Don Bradman and think you could become a cricketer! But, I certainly was inspired. It was my 17th birthday, and my mum bought me tickets to see Billy Connolly, because she knew I was interested in stand up comedy.
Back in those days, it wasn’t like it is today – where you can get on YouTube or download albums or podcasts from around the world. It was really rare to find a comedy record in those days, and the majority of them were Bill Cosby, Billy Connolly or Kevin Bloody Wilson.
So Mum and I went down to Melbourne to see Billy – it took us 2½ hours to travel down from the country. There were about 3,000 people in the room, aged between about 14 and 74. Billy spoke for about 2 – 2½ hours – and I could barely breathe through the whole thing! In my head I was thinking what a cool way this would be to make a living; it would be awesome!
I don’t necessarily think it was the moment I decided I would do it … if anything, seeing it done so well would almost put you off! But it was certainly the moment that inspired me – the moment that I felt it was something I’d really like to do.
Stand up comedy is certainly not an easy gig to get into, and you actually studied journalism in the beginning. Have you found these journalistic skills have helped you in any way with your comedy act over the years?
I think it would be drawing a long bow to think that my journalistic skills have helped me much. Realistically, I’ve been in comedy for 16 years, which is longer than people go to school! It’s kind of like asking, in a way, if the finger painting you did in kindergarten helped with university!
I think that what is probably true is that the very same attitude, the same reason people would be interested in journalism – which is that they have an interest in the world and an interest in news and current affair and interpreting or making sense of what is going on in the world – those are also very similar attributes that comedians have.
The power of observation, so to speak …
Yeah – I think so. The day-to-day skills aren’t particularly applicable. In fact, if anything – they’re almost opposite. The first rule of journalism is ‘don’t make it about you’ – and the first rule of comedy is kind of ‘make it all about you’!
A lot of people know you from appearances on the ABC – programs like ‘Good News Week’ and the ‘Glass House’. How did you become involved with your current role on the ‘The Gruen Transfer’?
I’m a stand up comedian by trade. When I get up in the morning, when I plan my year, it’s planned around my stand up comedy career. Anything else that comes along, whether it be a radio job, a TV job or writing a column – they all come and go in amazing ways. But because they’re not the way I mostly make my living – they’re all remarkably unplanned!
After the Glass House finished up, I was having a break from TV. I had about 18 months off, and then Andrew Denton took me to lunch. I went to lunch with Andrew because a). he was a hero of mine and b). he was paying! Andrew told me he wanted to do a show that gave people the tools to understand advertising, in the way that the show Frontline gave people the tools to understand current affairs. That was the entire pitch! I thought it sounded really interesting.
That’s how it all came about – and I never imagined while we were having that lunch that it would become so popular or well received. I also didn’t imagine that 5 years later we’d still be doing the show and we would already have done two different incarnations of it – and about to launch into a third.
Given your experience with ‘The Gruen Transfer’, how much do you feel that advertising reflects our society as a whole?
One hundred per cent! Advertising, more than anything else in our society, reflects our society. Advertisers have to sell us something … politicians can give a speech, a poet can write a poem, and even as a comedian I can imagine I’m getting my point across, but advertisers literally have to measure, in sold product, what they do. Advertisers have to have an inherent understanding of what motivates people. They can’t appeal to what we say motivates us; they have to appeal to what truly motivates us – and they can be two very different things.
The show itself is not about advertising. We never talk about trends in the advertising industry. Our show is about why we buy what we buy. And what we’re going to show with Gruen Planet is the same thing, but instead of talking about Toyota and Coke, we’re going to talk about Julia Gillard and Tiger Woods! But the principles are still the same: how are we being prompted, manipulated, pushed or nudged into consuming the things we consume and accepting the messages we accept.
What particular quotes have people come up with to describe your stand up routines that stick in your mind?
I do read my reviews – I try very hard to only read the good ones! (Laughs).
The quote we’ve used on the poster this year probably sums up my act better than anything else. “No-one combines political comedy and dick jokes quite like Wil Anderson!” I’m a believer in not preaching to the choir; I’m not saying things to people who already believe what I’m saying.
I’m a big believer that if you want to get through to people, you’ve got to use the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. My rule of comedy is that I can make whatever point I want, as long as I have a joke to go with it. I can make whatever joke I want – it doesn’t have to have a point, because I’m a comedian! But I’m not allowed to make a point without a joke.
‘Man vs Wil’, the show you’re touring at the moment … how would you go about describing it to us?
I’ll quote someone who came to my show, because I enjoyed his description. It was a proper Queensland bogan bloke, and he said, “You know what your show is? It’s what you reckon about stuff, why you reckon it and why you reckon you might be wrong”. That is the best explanation of what I’m trying to do with the show!
It’s a real examination of the grey areas of life – the idea that if we examine any idea long enough, anything we believe in long enough, we’ll always find a point where we, ourselves, become a hypocrite … so why does everything have to be absolute; why does everything have to be black and white?
Interview by Jo Atkins.