Why I Adore… Tony Martin

On July 18th a very special anniversary came and went – special, that is, to virtually no one but a small, insular group of super-fans (some might say nerds) with an interest in an influential but ageing gem of Australian TV.

It was the 20th anniversary of July 18th, 1992, the Saturday night on which The Late Show first aired live on the ABC, a cause for celebration, reflection and appreciation for a show still well-remembered by its fans long after it finished playing on television.

For me, the anniversary was an opportunity to reflect on not just the show, which I discovered relatively late in life, but one of its writer/performers in particular: the incomparable Tony Martin, who is entering his fourth decade entertaining and influencing Australians with his singular blend of high- and low-brow comedy in stand-up, television, radio, literature, feature film, and now even web video.

Tony Martin posing with a list of radio executives who will still take his calls.

I could go on all day about his legendary radio show Get This or his two books, but for this remembrance I want to focus on two of his most high-profile credits: The Late Show, through which most Australians first became familiar with him, and his 2003 “low budget cop movie”, Bad Eggs.

On that date back in 1992 I was seven years old, and though my older brothers would religiously watch The Late Show it never occurred to me to join them and find out exactly what they were on about when they would discuss such strange concepts as “Bargearse” or “Pissweak World” (which they compared, with some accuracy, to the eastern suburbs institution and source of much of my childhood disappointment, Wobbies World – home of the world’s slowest monorail).

A lot of the humour would have gone way over my head, of course, but now as a 27-year-old who believes Tony Martin to be Australia’s greatest comedy writer, I can’t help but think that if only I’d stayed up on just one Saturday night in 1992, I could have enjoyed two decades of Martin’s work as he was creating it rather than attempting to go back and piece it together after the fact – a task made possible (but not easy) with the aid of YouTube and an active culture of fans recording his work.

“Influential” is certainly an understatement when used to describe The Late Show and the team responsible for it. The D-Generation were a new breed of young, irreverent and disrespectful Australian comedians and theatre performers who assembled, Thunderbirds-style, in the 1980s and with acts like the Doug Anthony All Stars ushered in the demise of the relatively safe, prosaic Australian comedy that was dominant through the 1970s and (with a few exceptions) had scarcely developed since the end of World War II.

The Late Show, by contrast, was anything but safe. Absurdism, topical satire, slapstick, political humour and fart jokes would sit side-by-side, the show blending sharply-edited, high-quality pre-recorded sketches with live, in-studio pieces which could, and often would, go entirely off the rails and cause at least one performer to corpse (a delightful term derived from the theatre meaning to break character, such as to laugh during a scene).

While his quick wit, experience with stand-up comedy and rapport with Mick Molloy saw him introduce each episode and act as a sort of M.C. between sketches, the pre-recorded skits are where Martin’s talents really shone.

Apart from maybe Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant there are few writers in the world more willing than Tony Martin to actively hide their own jokes in a scene.

Sketches gave Martin an avenue to showcase his ability to work in a range of styles and with a range of topics, equally brilliant whether expressed as short, single-idea sketches or elaborate, high-concept sequences stretching over 10 minutes. He would often throw oblique references to art or pop culture into his work which, while not significant enough to spoil a sketch if you didn’t understand the reference, would make it that much funnier if you did.

One of my favourite examples of this is in “The Last Aussie Auteur”, a spoof of one or more stereotypically tawdry Australian film producers of the 1970s and 80s, personified by Warren Perso:

Hidden in the background of the sketch, barely catching seconds of visibility, hang posters for two of Perso’s films: Evil Angels 2: Lindy’s Revenge (tagline: “DINGOS BEWARE, SHE’S BACK – AND SHE’S MAD AS HELL!”), and Wuthering Heights Down Under.

These jokes aren’t central to the sketch in any way, but the fact that Martin surreptitiously placed these two posters into Perso’s office for those who happen to notice them (and understand the comment they make on the Australian film industry’s colourful history), says a lot about how much work he puts into a joke regardless of how many people would be expected to see or even understand it.

For most people those two jokes would fly entirely under the radar, but for someone that does catch them, that feeling of being “in on the joke” improves the scene immensely. Apart from maybe Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant there are few writers in the world more willing to actively hide their own jokes in a scene, forcing people to work hard to get maximum enjoyment out of their work.

Tony Martin… Canberra: Martin as Peter Harvey on The Late Show.

Above all else The Late Show was unpredictable – a quality appreciable even when viewing it for the first time many years after it first aired, as I had to do.

It was made in an era before entrenched home video, never meant to be viewed 20 years later, and certainly not viewed for the first time 20 years later. But it’s a testament to the strength of the show’s writing and the chemistry of its performers that – save for a few references to relics of the 90s like Tanya Blanco – it’s as relatable, hilarious and daring today as it must have been at the time.

The fact that a sizeable portion of Australia’s comedic output over the last 20 years has come from this single group of a dozen or so comedy performers is a testament to both their enduring talent and the risk-averse attitudes that Australian content commissioners have had towards comedy in the years since The Late Show went off the air.

After the show ended, most of its performers and writers split into two major camps, with one (Tom Gleisner, Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro and Jane Kennedy) forming Working Dog Productions and the other, Tony Martin and Mick Molloy, moving into commercial radio and eventually writing and/or directing films of their own.

Bad Eggs remains a film I desperately defend to my film-snob friends for one reason and one reason only: it’s funny.

While I did spend all of my high school years incessantly quoting The Castle with my small cadre of outcast friends – an easy shorthand by which the school’s female population could discount us as potential suitors – it is Martin’s Bad Eggs to which I continually return and which, if pressed, I would name as my favourite Australian comedy.

Note that I say it’s “my favourite” and not “the best” – an important distinction because, while it is a surprisingly effective comedy-thriller given its budget, on a technical level it clearly doesn’t have the production values of, say, The Dish or Kenny, which are positively slick compared to the slightly rough-around-the-edges Bad Eggs.

Victoria Police entry requirements were a little lax in the early 21st century.

Budgetary constraints are evident from the very first scene, where a long and presumably expensive tracking shot follows a car – its driver passed out from an apparent suicide attempt – rolling down a street and through a busy shopping centre. This impressive extended shot is undone almost immediately when the car crashes into a fountain and what is obviously a plastic mannequin flies through the windshield into a conveniently placed convertible.

The scene is ludicrously over-the-top, but then again, this is a film set in a world in which someone of Mick Molloy’s physique could make it as a “top cop”, so gritty David Simon-esque realism doesn’t seem to have been Martin’s goal.

But what it lacks in budget it certainly makes up for in its alchemical combination of hilarious visual humour; endlessly quotable dialogue; understated, laconic lead performances (especially from Bob Franklin); inventive set pieces (including one of the least-exciting security camera hacks in all of cinema); and a raft of irresistable cameos drawn from Martin’s long career in entertainment.

The result is a film which is justifiably panned for many legitimate reasons (with David Stratton giving it a particularly bad review on The Movie Show), but will remain a film I desperately defend to my film-snob friends for one reason and one reason only: it’s funny.

And that’s what I love about Tony Martin more than anything else: his absolute commitment to “the funny”, deliberately less focused on any factor which doesn’t directly make the sketch or scene more effective comedically.

The shame is that, despite his past successes in a range of creative media, the only time we get to see much of Martin on television these days is when he turns up on a light entertainment panel show, over which he has no control.

He has dipped his toes into the world of online content in collaboration with Wayne Hope and Robyn Butler, but I hope he finds his way to creating more film or television brilliance in the future, if only so that future generations aren’t forced to delve into decades of history or the bowels of the internet to discover the treasure trove that is his body of work.

The 20th anniversary of The Late Show has given me a chance to reflect on how much enjoyment Tony Martin has given me and many like me over his career, and it’s hard to think of anyone who has contributed more to Australian comedy over the past three decades than he has.

It’s a well-worn cliché to note that many of Australia’s favourite film and television performers are, in fact, not Australian, but do any of us really appreciate just how well we’ve done at the expense of our pacific neighbour?

For every Taika Waititi – who has stayed in New Zealand to make two of the sweetest and funniest films of the past 10 years (Eagle vs Shark and Boy) – there’s a handful of John Clarkes, Sam Neills or Jane Campions who crossed the Tasman and saw their adoptive country champion their successes and disavow their failures, as we Australians tend to do.

For me, even accounting for what others describe as “failures”, the New Zealander who has given Australia more successes than any other is Mr. Tony Martin.

Tony Martin can be found on Twitter at @mrtonymartin or on repeats of Spicks and Specks. Scarcely Relevant, an e-book collection of his columns for The Scriveners Fancy is available from Tony Martin Things for $6.00. I particularly recommend “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Laserdisc Player”, a reminiscence about an ancient device, and “Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy”, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Further Late Show clips that movie fans may enjoy:

About Bradley Dixon: Bradley J. Dixon is a web developer, writer and film lover who has been AFI | AACTA’s web coordinator since early 2012. You can find more of his film writings at his blog Cinema Quest or follow him on Twitter at @bradleyjdixon.

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