It’s rare that I get to do non-music interviews – well, Sammy’s definitely a musician, but in the realm of comedy. You get what I mean. Anyway! He’s a fantastic guy and a great interviewee. This is a Q&A format; which isn’t preferable but I guess it suited the chat a bit more. Sorry about that. Blame my past self!
– DJY, October 2014
The skinny man. The piano dude. That guy with the juice box. That weirdo with the puppet. He’s known to Australian audiences under a myriad of guises, but all of these attributes combined don’t even come close to covering Sammy J. He’s one of the hardest-working entertainers and one of the most unique minds working within Australia’s comedy circuit – and, in direct collaboration with puppeteer Heath McIvor, he’s created an ingenious odd couple in the form of Sammy J and Randy. The two are currently performing their third show under the moniker, The Inheritance; and we spoke to Sammy J himself about the new show, working with a puppet and the most unlikely place for a comedian to succeed in this country.
Hey Sammy, how have the shows been going so far at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival?
Sammy J: They’ve all been pretty fun! There’s been no stinkers. Y’know, normally in the festival, you have a show or two that make you question your entire career choice. Maybe that will be tonight, now I’ve said that…
How long have you been performing The Inheritance now?
We opened it at the Adelaide Fringe in February, so we’ve probably got about 40 shows under our belts so far. In Melbourne, we’ve been doing it for the past 2-and-a-half weeks, with one-and-a-half to go. It’s been great. Our festival year starts in Adelaide, then goes Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and then over to Edinburgh in August. It’s quite a long stretch, so it means that we get constant incentive to make the show better. You don’t just sit back and relax – you’ve got new cities to win over!
With that said, how much has the show changed since it debuted in Adelaide?
A fair amount. My mum saw the show last night, and she saw the trial show back in January when we put it on for our friends and family. It was just a balls-up, that night. Everything was breaking, sets were falling over… so she confessed after the show last night that she’d been quite nervous when she sat down at the Forum with all these people there for a show that might not be all that good. [Laughs] We picked it up, did a lot of changes. The drive home from Adelaide to Melbourne each year is a very productive time for Randy and I – we do a lot of rewriting, we go through jokes that we don’t like and we cut some scenes out. It’s humming along now. The engine has been tuned, and we’ve put a few new seat covers on and stuff; to continue that metaphor.
Stephen Colbert is a comedian that’s best known for portraying the character of Stephen Colbert in his shows. It’s somewhat similar to what you do – you’re Sammy J, but you’re also playing a character in these festival shows called Sammy J. How different is the person on stage to the person you might meet in the street?
You’re right – I call myself Sammy J because it’s a nickname, rather than a character name. It’s what my friends call me and stuff. I think it’s just an exaggerated version of me – and I mean extremely exaggerated. Sammy J on stage will happily kill a dude or fuck a puppet and won’t really think too much about it. I mean, I still kill dudes and fuck puppets, but I do feel bad about it in real life. And I’m far more discreet.
We can only imagine that Heath isn’t as foul-mouthed when he doesn’t have a puppet on the end of his hand…
We’re both fairly tame. As much as we swear on-stage, every single “fuck” and “cunt” in our show has been put through a meticulous quality control process, and it’s there purely to serve the joke.
This is your fourth show with Heath, and the third show as Sammy J and Randy. Now that you’ve done this many shows writing with Heath in mind, do you think you’re more confident about writing with both of these characters as opposed to just putting a bunch of songs together and saying “that’ll do”?
Definitely. We’ve definitely learned a lot more about the characters, and how they interact with one another and the world around them. Having said that, we take longer and longer writing our shows now – we feel like we have more options and slightly more pressure to not fuck up. When we wrote The Forest of Dreams, we literally just sat around and made each other laugh for two weeks. We didn’t think that many people would see the show – and then, suddenly, we’re off to London and Edinburgh and doing the show all around the place. We knew we had to step it up from then on in. But, yeah, as far as writing goes, it’s still us trying to make something that we find funny – but it’s also balance that with not wanting to bore a crowd, as well. I’m very happy for people to hate my guts, but I’d hate to think that we’re doing something boring.
Is it very much a collaborative process, or do you still view these shows as your own?
It’s easily collaborative. We write everything together. When we’re writing songs, I’ll sit down at the piano and Heath will be there with me. Because we’ve still got our solo stuff on the side, we’ve got that outlet as well for whenever we want to be complete control freaks. When it’s together, though, we’ve both still got the same goals in mind. We battle it out, and it’s very rewarding.
With The Inheritance, it would have been clear from the start that you needed to make something better than Bin Night, but also something that was fresh and unique. What inspired the writing of The Inheritance?
With Bin Night, our challenge was to write something that was set over one evening. It was us, standing in the front yard of our house – and that was it. It was our bottle episode, if you will; a complete mind-fuck of a show with a lot of dialogue. Having achieved that, our direction turned to the complete opposite so that we could make something as epic as we could. In this show, Randy’s uncle dies in England – it happens in the first few minutes of the show. We go over to England to claim the inheritance, so it’s kind of the opposite of Bin Night. It takes place over a couple of continents and a couple of months. There’s some pretty big things at stake here, too – ghosts and family history and stuff. We pretty much did a 180 – we wrote a film script, to be honest – and thought we’d see where it would go from there.
Obviously, there is a bunch of new songs in The Inheritance written by you and Heath. When it comes to performing away from the festival, do you look at the list of songs you’ve just written and say to yourself “Fuck, I can’t use any of these songs out of context!”?
[Laughs] That is actually a legitimate concern. When you’re writing a show like ours, you don’t want the songs to stand out like dog’s balls. You want to have them within context and driving the show forward. The problem is, as you say, that you just can’t pull them out whenever you feel like it. It also means that when the people come along to the shows, they haven’t seen the songs on TV or whatever – so hopefully that means that there’s something fresher about them.
It’s worth mentioning that you and Heath recently re-wrote the opening song from Bin Night for your opening number hosting the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala. How did that come about?
Yes, indeed! I’m glad you actually picked that up. That was sort of our idea, because even though we had great numbers for Bin Night, it was still only a couple of thousand versus a couple of million watching on TV. When they asked us to host, we had to work out just how we were going to do it. People watching at home probably didn’t know us that well, if at all. We thought that one good way of doing that would be to latch ourselves onto a well-known comedian. So we asked Adam Hills, and he agreed to be involved. We then concocted this idea of how he was the “true” Gala host, and we would kidnap him in order to take his place. It was pretty cool, getting to whack Adam Hills with a brick. [Laughs] He literally flew in for 37 minutes to give us his time because he was shooting his ABC show. It was very helpful. He’s a gem.
What does the rest of the year have in store for Sammy J and Randy? Do you plan to write a sequel to the show? Maybe work with some new characters, or continue under the same moniker?
The Inheritance actually brings in a significant new character, which I won’t give away but you’ll see at the show. After Edinburgh, we’re planning on focusing more on our TV plans. Randy and I would like to do our own sitcom-type show. It’s a pipe dream at the moment, but we figure at some point you’ve got to make things happen. So we’re taking a few months off to just write that and then start hawking it around to networks and so on.
Would it be similar to your skits on Good News World?
I think it will have a similar sense of humour, but at the same time we’d like it to fit into more in a real world sort of setting. Less studio-based and more of us living in an actual shithouse.
It was also mentioned on The Little Dum Dum Club earlier in the year that you will have another project out soon in the form of a human life?
There is a human life I’ve been working on now, it’s making its debut in 2 months’ time. It’s not like a show – there’s nothing I can do now to make it any better. I did my job seven months ago, and now it’s like waiting for a film to be released. I think I did a fine job at the time, but I guess we’ll find out, y’know? The child in question will be accompanying me to Edinburgh in August, so it’s going to be a well-travelled baby!
Imagine being a jetsetter before you’re even turning one!
[Laughs] I don’t know how else to make money, so I thought that we should just do it. The poor bastard is being born in to a comedian family.
Do you think Randy would be a good godparent?
Look, I couldn’t think of anyone less equipped in the universe to guide a child through moral quandry than Randy. I’ll be keeping a couple of kilometres’ distance between them.
Just before we go, would you do us the honour of pissing off every other city in Australia and putting your money on the best place to perform comedy?
I would have to answer this question simply by pointing out that one can only decide on their favourite comedy city based on their own experience. Now, Melbourne is my hometown and I love it dearly. I’ve done 90% of my gigs here. Of course, that also means that I’ve had my bad gigs in Melbourne, as well. Sydney and Adelaide, both equal highs and lows. One city that I’ve always had good shows in, though, is the lovely roundabout-ed city of Canberra. I’ve only performed there four or five times, but each time has just been wonderful. So, simply from a percentage point of view, I would have to say that Canberra is my favourite city to perform in. I’m going there in a few weeks to launch my solo album, so we’ll see if it retains the crown.
What can you tell us about the album?
It’s a collection of songs that I’ve been performing solo for the past few years. It’ll be a bit of fun, it’s coming out on iTunes and that sort of thing. It’s called Skinny Man, Modern World.
Genius. We’ve got a new Dark Side of the Moon on our hands.
Indeed. That was my very humble ambition.