Roshi Kaila and Russell Watt sat down with Charles Firth (The Chaser) and James Schloeffel (The Shovel) to talk about their latest show The War on the Fucking Election, politicians being dicks, and to give a #breaking announcement…
Give us an overview of concept of the show in 25 words or less.
CF: A few years ago the National Tally room in Canberra got abolished by the AEC, so we have taken that concept and we are touring it around the country. So the show is literally the National Tally Room in Canberra (or Mt Lawley), so you get the excitement of the National Tally Room that the AEC has abolished.
JS: Because it was exciting.
CF: It was exciting! It was a great place to hang out. You always bumped into grumpy, conservative politicians, and you could make fun of them.
How did this collaboration come about?
JS: So Charles and I started working together around 5 years ago, and I just used to work by myself and it’s much more interesting working with Charles, much more fun.
CF: And it’s an anti-competitive cartel, we’ve cornered the satire market.
JS: We wanted to corner the satire market, and between us we’ve done that, and we started writing stuff together and then we started doing glorified book launches for those bits of writing, and then we thought well, why don’t we turn these into kind of more prepared, produced shows. And then we’ve sort of just added people on as we’ve gone on, and it’s certainly improved it.
CF:And we decided we needed to bring in some good performers, some actual talent.
JS: Charles has worked with Mark for a long time, back on The Roast.
CF: I made Mark Humphries. When I first met him he was hauling boxes in a warehouse, and then he became a writer on The Roast.
JS: And then Victoria and Jenna, (from Freudian Nip and The Feed) we did our first show with them, The War on 2018 in November last year, and they bring this entirely new fun element to it because they are incredibly talented, but also very different from us – they add a more theatrical element to it.
CF: And their comedic journey is almost identical to my comedic journey, but about 20 years younger, which is very depressing. They edited the student newspaper at Sydney University, which is what I did 20 years ago, and they were boasting that they performed in the Arts Review there, which is what we set up 20 years ago. So, it was pretty cool.
How does a live show translate from written publications, produced videos and radio work?
JS: It is extra work but it does translate incredibly well. I think a lot of the writing we do throughout the year is very headline driven like you’ve probably seen on The Shovel. A good satirical headline is a bit like a punchline for a joke, so in that way it is a bit like stand-up comedy.
With the live shows, it’s more about just doing the set-up to the punchline, but then the punchline is already written. But as we’ve gone on, we’ve added more and more elements to it to make it more of a complete live show, but all of the elements are there in what we write and it does translate very well.
CF: Our method started out as literally copying and pasting parts of the book, putting them on a PowerPoint presentation so that we wouldn’t have to remember what we we’re going to say.
JS: We are the laziest.
CF: My former self would be appalled at how un-lazy I am.
What’s the production process like for something like the 100-page bonanza that is the election guide?
JS: I wish there was a straightforward or well-organised process. It’s very chaotic, we both live in different cities.
CF: Luckily we’ve got this genius called Cam Smith who is just a genius.
JS: And the other key thing about Cam is that he just doesn’t sleep, so basically what happens is we just write a whole lot of just shit and send it to him about a week before, and he will just not sleep and put it all together. He designs everything, but he’s also very funny so he will add little pieces to it. So it’s just this chaotic process where we just throw everything at him and he makes it look good.
What content did you have to change at the last minute, on the election guide you’ve just pasted Scott Morrison’s face on top of Malcolm Turnbull, is that what it’s like for the whole thing?
JS: A lot of it yeah. When we do the annuals it doesn’t matter too much because it’s a chronological thing and you get up to a point and that’s where you have to go to print. With this we’ve done every single electorate with the sitting member, and there were three people who resigned from the Liberal Party in the week before it went to print, which was a headfuck writing all of those. There was this one I’m very proud of was for Craig Laundy, who hadn’t resigned but I had this feeling he would, so the entry for him is “By the time you read this he will have resigned” and then a week later he resigned, so there’s a bit of guesswork in there.
CF: But the themes don’t change. ‘Clive Palmer is a dick who rips off his workers’ is in the news today, but it was a back-page ad in the guide as well. Women in the Liberal Party, One Nation; I don’t think the One Nation-NRA story had broken when we had gone to print but you can still mock them for being dumb racists.
James – what prompted you to start The Shovel?
JS: Tony Abbott, actually. I was just doing comedy writing but much straighter, maybe with a slight satirical twist 6 years ago, and not all of it was about politics but a lot of it was, and I was just finding it harder and harder to make sense of the world, of politics in Australia with Tony Abbott without going to full-blown satire, so that’s what I started doing. No one wanted to publish satire back then, so I started publishing myself, and that’s how The Shovel started basically.
Charles – you’ve been in the spotlight for a number of controversies over the years, be it the APEC summit stunt a few years ago and recently releasing Alan Jones’ personal phone number. How do you deal with the backlash of these (such as intense media scrutiny) and does it affect your personal life?
CF: With the Alan Jones one, I got over 10,000 calls and messages [after releasing his own number on a morning show with Kerri-Anne Kennerley], but it was lovely. It was a bit annoying obviously not being able to use your phone for a few weeks, but 99% of the messages were like “Good on ya, Alan Jones is a dick”, so it was really nice.
The worst part about doing those stunts is the hours leading up to it, because you get terrified of it. We did some stunts in the US when we were covering the 2016 election together, and it’s the beforehand that’s bad, but the actually payoff, whether you do it or you don’t quote do it, you;re so relieved that it’s over, and the adrenaline is all gone, and then the actual reaction is usually just dicks telling you that they don’t like you, so you sort of go “I must be doing something right”.
Real life politics seems to be becoming a joke in and of itself in recent years. Has it become easier or harder to actually come up with satirical content in that context?
CF: I maintain that it’s easier. It is true that you have to extend further, we’ve noticed that a lot that actually just taking it one twist more is like “Well hang on, that is what they’ll do”. So you have to get more absurd, but that’s just good discipline, and then it still comes true, it just takes 6 months to come true. And the number one comment you always get on social media is “wait, I thought you wrote satire?”.
How important do you think your work is to the function of democracy?
CF: I think it lies at the very heart of democracy, we’re more important than say a Mandela or a Gandhi, or Martin Luther King.
JS: It’s not going to change someone’s vote, but it might get someone engaged in politics who otherwise wasn’t, maybe. Do you think?
CF: Hannah Gadsby had a really good point about the use of comedy to break the tension at moments when tension shouldn’t be broken, and that’s why she did ‘Nanette’ to stop breaking the tension in these really important moments, and that made me think a lot about what we’re doing. It did make me question for a while, is what we’re actually doing encouraging cynicism which is actually a corrosive thing. Is our contribution bad to the public discourse? But I eventually decided no, it’s not bad. And what we can do is identify thematic truths that actually provide people with useful tools to analyse politics.
What advice would you have for people trying to write and create satire?
CF: There’s about 2 or 3 things that I’d say. Early on when you’re writing comedy or satire, really try and parody existing forms. Parody can be a really useful guide rail for your writing because you’ve got an existing form that you’re mocking but you have to stick to, and stick to it. If your form is a newspaper article, really pay attention to the parody points of how news articles unfold, and mimic, mimic, mimic.
The second thing I’d say is obey the laws of comedy. There are about 3 or 4 fundamental laws of comedy that are actually true. Things like the rule of 3 (set-up, advance, twist) is a form that works in comedy. Tight is right. Misdirection. And be aware of what you’re doing. If what you’re trying to do is misdirect your reader, be aware of where the misdirection point lies and make sure that everything before that leads away from the point that you want to misdirect. And they are all things that we talk about every time we’re working out how to hone gags, after 20 years when we started to write comedy will use those basic tools. So what I’m saying is just get good at the craft.
A lot of people say that the Chaser came from nowhere overnight and that is simply not true. We wrote a hundreds newspapers before we started TV. We had all written hundreds of thousands of words of comedy. And you look back at the early work and go “oh my god”.
JS: I would say if specifically if you’re aiming your stuff at social media because so many people are these days, you have to get the joke right up the top, no one’s going to click through because they think that it might be funny, it has to be funny from the start. We have people sending stuff through that has some really really boring title, and it might be really really funny, but it’s never going to grab people’s attention.
We’ve seen in the last few weeks a right wing group attempt satire with Captain Getup, but it does point to a wider trend of successful satire being more left-leaning. Do you think there’s a reason for that?
JS: There’s all sorts of reasons, one might be because a lot of people who write comedy tend to be left wing. But the idea that comedy should punch up, not punch down, tends to lend itself more to left-wing ideas. If you think about left-wing ideas vs. right wing ideas, and without judging which one is right or wrong, left wing ideas of equality and distributing wealth, or the opposite of that, individualism and business, it’s always easier to punch up to things like that rather than the other way around.
CF: Punching down when you’re being satirical just looks like you’re gloating.
JS: And I think that makes right wing satire not impossible but harder.
CF: And that’s historically true, it’s not the last 30 years, the role of the court jester hundreds of years ago was to mock the king in front of him, which was punching up.
Can you give us one thing you like about Bill Shorten/Scott Morrison?
CF: I was told this was going to be a light interview, that’s like a fucking test. I can’t think of a single redeeming feature of Scott Morrison. I don’t think I can think of anything for Bill Shorten either. Apart from Beaconsfield.
JS: The only hope with Bill Shorten is because he has no personality and because no one likes him, like people hate him but not as much as Tony Abbott, maybe he can just be the head of an effective government.
CF: His weakness is his strength, he doesn’t run all the media like a lot of them, and that’s because he’s so weak and ineffectual, and I think that could be a real strength.
JS: I don’t think it’s likely but I think it’s more possible than we’ve had for a while, under all the Turnbull’s or Rudd’s with these massive egos, and maybe maybe there might be this situation where there’s this reasonably effective government that’s allowed to work for some period of time.
CF: So what you’re saying is that the strength of Bill Shorten is everyone else around Bill Shorten. But can you think of anything for Scott Morrison? I just think he’s a putrid person.
JS: Yeah, he may be different in person, but in terms of what he presents, there’s not a lot.
Who do you look up to/who inspired your career choice?
JS: John Clarke, I loved him as a comedian, satirist, writer. And when I was growing up he was certainly someone who got me into understanding and liking satire.
CF: D-Generation and Andrew Denton.
Who is your favourite politician to mock?
JS: Peter Dutton.
What’s your favourite part of your job?
JS: The live shows, they’re the most fun thing. Writing can be fun but it can also be a bit of a drain, but these shows are when it all comes together and it’s fun to work with all these talented people.
CF: Last night we had our first show in Melbourne, and it was the most fun, especially the first shows when you’re still working out where all the gags are.
What would you be doing if you were not doing this?
JS: I have a job anyway so I would just be doing more of that.
CF: I don’t know, I had a TV show called The Roast that was axed a few years ago, and for the 6 months after that I didn’t have many options, I just wondered around going “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life”, and I didn’t do anything. So I would probably just be unemployed because I don’t know how to do anything else.
What are your predictions for the election?
JS: I think it’s going to be very close but I think Labor will win.
CF: I reckon Morrison will get back in. There’s only been 3 elections since WWII that the Labor Party have been elected to government as a change of government, and all three were on the back of social movements, like Vietnam, the unions and environmentalism, and Rudd with Your Rights Work, which was much bigger than the ALP. So Labor only gets into power when they offer a genuine alternative, so playing the small target without making any sort of social movement networks around them to come along for the ride, they’re just not going to get across the line. People will just default to “Well, my dad always voted Liberal so I’ll vote Liberal”
In light of a comedian becoming President of Ukraine, will either of you contest to be PM?
JS: Charles will definitely become Prime Minister.
CF: I can use the Pelican to announce my run. Terrible idea announcing it here. You can have all my scandals too, break them to the world.
Pelican unreservedly thanks James and Charles for taking the time to speak with us.