Do not adjust your set - comic anti hero Andrew Denton returns to late night - by Dino Scatena - Rolling Stone

In just over a month, Andrew Denton will be making his debut as the Seven Network's new late night television host but, for this moment, it seems to be the last thing on Denton's mind. "I want to do this per show," he announces. "It's called," - he screams - "Jesus! Get This Thing Off Me!" Everyone in the photographic studio is once again in hysterics. Denton is also laughing. The endless stream of one liners is as much for his own amusement as anyone else's.

For the next few minutes, in between clicks, Denton taunts the Rolling Stone photographer with his baboon impression, challenging the camera to capture the image. Over the duration of the two hour shoot, he contorts his face into hundreds of expressions, each for an instant, each drawing a laugh from his small audience.

This is live, folks - Denton comes without a pause button. It's relentless. Martin Coombes, who will direct Denton in his new late night slot (the two worked together at the ABC on "Blah Blah Blah", "The Money or the Gun", and "Live and Sweaty") believes "Andrew's success comes from his ability to pull a joke out of nothing. It's like the performance of a car; so many jokes per minute. There's very few situations where he hasn't got something to say which is funny."

However, like on television, when it's required, Denton can come on all serious. And he's very serious about his work, about the art of being funny. "Comedy is a really weird thing," he explains in a more sombre moment. "Sometimes its's like a smell; you've got to focus very hard so you can capture the faintest of things that you can just perceive. Then sometimes it happens spontaneously and a great line will come out. But often some of the lines I say spontaneously, which are really good by my standards, people will miss or they won't laugh. That doesn't bother me because, in the end, I'm there to entertain myself. I would not want to do a hit show which I didn't like. I would rather do a failure which I was really proud of. Indeed, that's my aim for this year."

Andrew Denton - The ABC's comic boy genius, former host of "Blah Blah Blah", "The Money or the Gun", and "Live and Sweaty","World Series Debating" champion, the "anti-tv star", the "spaghetti with muscles", the "professional dag" - wants the Seven Network to expect the worst. He wants everyone to know he's in this to shake things up. "I'm always best when I'm fighting something, be it a network or a perception of myself."

Words to make television's moral guardians shudder. After all, this is the man who led a live television audience in rolling condoms over cucumbers, the same guy who allowed the first all nude male rock band into our loungerooms, the little punk who sat on our screens chumming it with Paul Keating, addressing his new pal as Pooky.

If we were to have our sensitive viewing palates protected from his subversive ways, someone should have spotted the signs much earlier. Maybe they should have picked that eye fixing smile on the manic taxi driving extra in an episode of "The Investigators" in the mid '80s; that innocent grin which would be used to cut through the defence of the most hardened of interviewees.

If that was missed, the performance by the same bespectacled brat on the ABC's "Theatresports" in 1987 definitely shouldn't have gone unnoticed. There he stood on our screens, playing the room, mouthing some improvised rhyming couplets while a sustained beep censored out his words. When the audio was safely returned, all we could hear was the hysterical laughter of the studio audience.

But that's the past. Now Denton has his own live show, stalking the boards in the same time slot which made a legend of Graham Kennedy, a gridiron presenter of Don Lane and sent Steve Vizard back to the changeroom a broken man. So what is he going to do next? Well, not even Denton knows.

Sitting in his new office in Sydney on his first day back from a holiday in Bali and a four week shoot in Antarctica (for a final episode of "The Money or the Gun", scheduled to be aired on the ABC in May), Denton says he only has a foggy vision of the shape the new show will take. "If I appear to be blase about it, I'm not," he explains. "What I do know is that some sort of tv show is going to happen and I can't avoid that. So, we'll get there."

He'll tell us he has a two year contract to produce an hour long show, live, twice a week, but not much more. "I would much prefer if no one was watching the first show and lots of people were watching the last show," he says. "But that is a distinct difference between commercial tv and the ABC. They [the Seven Network] want - and in many ways have the right to expect - to get the biggest possible audience from day one because it's a commercial enterprise. I've entered into a business deal with them - they're giving me creative freedom on the understanding that I'll deliver them an audience."

Andrew Denton grew up in the Blue Mountains, NSW, Son of Le and Kit Denton (author of "The Breaker" which was filmed as "Breaker Morant") and the second of three children. "I largely grew up alone and I really enjoyed it," Denton says of his pre teens. "I lived in the little town where the school was - most of the other kids were from further down the line - so I didn't go home and play with my friends; I went home and played with myself. And I'm still playing with myself today."

Following high school, he completed a BA degree in communications at Mitchell College in Bathurst. His first job out was as a technician for a community based video production unit called Metro Television. He then moved on to writing and producing videos for an insurance company. A while later, in 1985, Denton was invited to become a member of Writer's Bloc, the team which would end up runner's up in the ABC's "Theatresports" in 1987. Also in '87, he became a scriptwriter and on air side kick for Doug Mulray, Triple M's bawdy breakfast show host in Sydney.

Later in the year, Marin Coombes (who also directed "Theatresports" and "Beatbox") and ABC comedy producer Mark FitzGerald, recognising Denton's raw talent and camera friendliness from the "Theatresports" experience, invited him to audition for a program that was in the pipeline, the taboo tackling talk show, "Blah Blah Blah". Suddenly, Andrew Denton had his own televison show.

After two seasons, it was to "The Money or the Gun" (a "glossy version of "Blah Blah Blah", according to Denton) in 1989. An episode the following year - "The Year of the Patronising Bastard - People with Disabilities" - was awarded a United Nations Media Peace Prize. In 1991, Denton moved on to host the new style, late night sports program, "Live and Sweaty." In 1993, his final year with the ABC, he limited his services to appearing on "World Series Debating", and the odd "Money or the Gun" special.

Now there's the mountain of commercial television. Sure, he's nervous, he admits, but he's writhing to take on the challenge. "I'm hoping it will have a pretty broad appeal," he says of the new program. "I don't see why not. I never sit down and consciously think, 'What audience are we trying to reach?' I sit down and make something I'd like to watch. I guess the frightening thought is that there might be a lot of people out thre that think the same way I do, in which case this country is in deep s*it."

There's a few things Andrew Denton wants to make clear from the outset of our main interview. First, he approached Channel 7 and not the other way around. There had been constant offers from all the commercial networks over the past few years but now was the right time. "I had no complaints about the creative licence I got at the ABC," he stresses, "but there are other things in life. It really was just time for a change. And there aren't that many options if you're going to stay in television. I'm 33 now. I didn't want to look back at age 50 and think, 'Why did I never try that?' If it doesn't work, it's not going to be the end of my world. And if it does work, I'm still not going to stay there and do it for 20 years."

Second, yes, there's a lot more money involved but, no, that wasn't a motivating factor. Third : "You're under strict instructions that when you start getting boring or droning to death, you have to stop me." And finally : "I believe in victory at all costs."

Our conversation is not the main priority here. There's a sporting event in progress - a winner takes the other's soul pool game in a pub in Glebe, Sydney. Denton is a threatening sportsman. "If you pot that, I'm leaving," he sneers as my ball bounces off the cushion and lands in the middle pocket. (Hey, Hewson, if you're reading this, that one's for the time he was slapping you 'round baby!) Well I tell him I hate his beloved rugby league, that I find it ridiculously tedious, the interview is truly in jeopardy. We finish our games (RS - 2, Denton - 0), play some matches with a couple of punters who befriend our celebrity (World - 2, Denton/RS - 0) and then move to a quieter cafe down the road.

Let's start off with Antarctica. How was that?

Physically, an extraordinary place. Probably the only place in the world where, no matter how hard you look, you won't find a single advertising slogan. What really blew me away was that you walk out the back door and there's real wild life just sitting there. We're not used to that. It's either in a zoo or it's dead on a road. It was also probably the hardest tv work I've done in my life. I came back a shattered man. The remenants of me are talking to you right now.

There are rumours you've taken a couple of the guys from the D-Gen with you to the Seven Network. Is that true?

No. Look, I think they're fantastic. They have clearly been the hot thing on Australian televison for years. Why would they want to come and work with me? They've got thriving, fantastic careers. It doesn't make any sense when you think about it, but then most people who write tv gossip columns don't think. That's not their job. I'd love to work with the D-Gen at some point but I can't think of any earthly reason why they would come and work for me. I woudn't suggest it to them anyway.

You said earlier you didn't think your profile was going to change much because of the move to a commercial station, but I think it will...

Why do you think that?

Because the gossip columns attract...

Well, I must admit I've noticed that already. There seems to be more of that s*it. And they just make it up. You can't do anything about it.

How do you feel about that? It's something that's out of your control even if you don't say anything.

In the end, I'd rather have an image problem than a reality problem. I know what my own bulls*it is and I know when I do things which I'm disappointed with, but when someone makes it up or gets it completely wrong, part of me just laughs and thinks, "You're so stupid". But I get a bit annoyed. Like, apparently, in this weeks's issue of "TV Week", someone has crept around the railway line beneath our place and taken a photo of this new house which my partner [broadcast jounalist Jennifer Byrne] and I have moved into. That annoys me. People say, "Gee, you're very precious about this," but what could be more precious than your private life? Some people in the media adore being in the public eye. They would go to the opening of a wound, they'll fart and send a press release out. I don't like that.

I quite like the Doug Anthony Allstars' defence mechanism which is just to make stuff up in interviews.

Well, I used to do that actually. There's a lot of false stuff about me around. But it becomes physically, mentally and emotionally draining to keep fighting this. You can't pretend that the gravity of where you are doesn't exist. History is full of people that have fallen to their deaths trying to defy gravity. Sometimes it's very funny. When I was away in Antarctica, my marriage was announced. I hope it was a good wedding. I can't wait to see the photos.

I've heard "New Idea" has got them.

Oh good. They've probably matted my head onto [Dannii Minogue's husband] Julian Mc Mahon's body. [Ironically, four days after this interview, news that Andrew and Jennifer are expecting a child makes front page of Sydney's "Telegraph Mirror".]

Can you give me a couple of examples of your fibs?

I'll tell you one which turned out to be a disaster - by sheer misfortune. I did an interview with the "Sunday Telegraph" once. People ask you about your family and I don't particularly like to talk about it. On this one occasion, I said to this woman, "Well, my family was killed in a bus crash when I was very young. I was raised by bus drivers and I live on buses, blah, blah, blah." Anyway, some months later, the article came out with all this stuff in it. The problem was that it was published the day after one of the major bus crashes on the north coast of NSW where something like 30 people had been killed. I went white when I saw the paper. I shouldn't be surprised that I have trouble with the press. I suppose they have trouble with me too. I'm not an easy f*ck.

One of the strongest aspects of your art, through all the televison that you've done, is that you've tried to bring realism into a medium which presents itself as reflecting reality but is actually somewhere else.

Yeah. Well, when I came into the industry, I had a really strong view on television. I have been brought up, like most people my age, on a diet of Don and Bert and Don and Bert and Don and Bert and Ernie. It seemed to me it was the same cosy group of people that were doing each other's chat shows and crawling up each other's rectums. There was nothing that talked to my generation. Youth television was ghettoised to rock clip shows. The first time I ever saw anything on Australian tv that had a go at this was Norman Gunston, which I still rank as one of the finest pieces of televison I've ever seen. And the first time I saw anything that spoke to young people intelligently was "Beatbox". So I came into television bristling with attitude about all these things and I was very fortunate that I met up with a group of people at the ABC who didn't want to do it the old way, who didn't want to have nice, neat television, who didn't want to have the same guests that everybody else had and who wanted to be confronting.

Do you feel like you belong to any tradition of Australian comedy?

On one level, invariably. But I've always noticed that when there are retrospectives or articles about Australian comedy, I'm never included in them. Sometimes it annoys me because it's like, what have I been doing for the last seven years? But I don't think people really percieve me in that tradition. I don't know why and I don't lose any sleep over it. I'd love to think that one day someone will come out and make a fabulous tv show because they saw something I did one time and were inspired by it, the way I saw Norman Gunston and thought, "This is great. This is what I wanted to see."

You said to me the other day you're going to leave behind the jackets and the bow ties. Will we see a different Andrew Denton on the show?

No, because I don't have another act. That's it. I am what I am. The only reason I'm getting rid of the jackets and all that stuff is not only because it's become boring but it's not the point. The point is the ideas, the point is the words. This year I'll wear something really plain. I think I might dress like a Morman, just a black suit. It could be quite funny actually. If it wasn't for the fact that I'm far worse nude, that's probably how I'd go.

When you approached the Seven Network, what did you say to them?

I went to them with a set of ideas. It's probably best that I don't go into that, not because it's so confidential but because I'd rather get this show up and happening and see if it works before I explain why I've come to do it. It's a good story but it could sound all wrong at this stage.

Do you have any anxiety over the move?

Oh yeah. Though I don't percieve it as going to the big time, I'm well aware that there's a different set of pressures at play. From the networks's point of view, they can't indulge me being unsuccessful or a partial success; they need a successful show. While that doesn't change the way I'm approaching it, I'm aware that it could make life difficult at a future time. I know if it doesn't work, my life is going to become a lot more uncomfortable as Channel Seven will probably horn me into a remake of "It Could Be You." That's a pretty scarey thought.

What was the reaction when you went to the ABC management and told them?

In the end, it all happened very quickly but there were really long negotiations. It's a difficult thing to negotiate creative freedom with anybody. So I had this contract sitting on my desk at home and I told Channel Seven that I wasn't going to sign it until I'd actually done the ABC the courtesy of telling them. I had to get to the airport, so Channel Seven - a sign of things to come - had laid on a hire car for me and it was waiting outside. The clock was ticking down and I really hadn't thought about it. I rang up the head of comedy at the ABC, Ted Robinson, and then I rang my co producer for the debates, Gabrielle Ewington, and it was the first time I thought, "S*it, I'm leaving this place where I've had a really rewarding time, and I'm leaving a bunch of people who I really like and enjoyed working with." I got really emotional. But the upshot of it was that I had to sign this contract and I had to get a witness and there was no one around. So I raced out to the hire care and said to the driver, "Could you just sign this for me." And he did and I said, "Thanks very much. You've just signed my future away."

What is it about you that thrives on change?

It's two things. Part of it is ego : I don't want to become a tired old act. And part of it is just my nature - I'm a very eclectic person. In fact, I'm a mental jukebox. I could give you three perfect pop minutes on any subject but I couldn't give you a symphony on anything. I've done quite a lot of different things on television, certainly compared with virtually any of my contemporaries. But it's still just television. If I was really going to go out on a limb, I'd try theatre of film or a series of pornographic macrames.

Did you do acting in college?

I did a bit. I was never good at it. I thought for a while there I could be an actor and I auditioned for various theatre in education things but I just wasn't capable of bending my body over backwards and free forming.

Was there a point where you aquired your skill as a presenter or is it a natural thing for you?

I've refined it but, basically, what a lot of people don't realise is that I was given the gig with "Blah Blah Blah and I'd never done an interview in my life. I just basically walked off the street and that's where I started. There was no training. I've improved a lot since then. I tended to talk a lot like a chipmunk on ephedrine. I still do that sometimes when I get a bit excited but I'm a bit more measured, a bit more paced now.

One of the episodes of "The Money or the Gun", the "Pursuit of Happiness", had a little Andrew Denton practising in front of the mirror. Was there anything like that in your childhood?

No. I did want to be an actor. I remember being eight or nine at school and being a major general in "Pirates of Penzance". I was an utter show off and I stole the show as kids at that age tend to do. From that point on, it was the classic, "I was on stage and I knew that's where I wanted to be". But it wasn't like, "Oh, I really want to grow up and be a tv star." If I had been given my absolute choice in life, I would have been a rock & roll star. To me, to be young and be a rock & roll star would be the ultimate. But God blessed me with fingers which are completely independent of my brain - I have no co-ordination. I can't even play the tambourine without causing serious physical injury.

We share the same problem.

You know the frustration.

That's why I'm working for "Rolling Stone".

What would you want to be? A singer, guitarist or drummer?

I think it would have to be singer/guitarist, wouldn't it?

Yeah, me too. That way you can just let the guitar hang and grab the mic with both hands. Or even - slightly wankier - strapped on your back with the kind of bandolero look.

For the power ballad.

And then, in one easy motion, you swing it around and say, "Here's another little song I wrote." It's absolutely the way. It's not in my nature but I really would love to have the abandonment that rock & roll lends itself to. The drugs and the alcohol bingers, the snake hips. I mean, I'm very conservative, serious young stick insect who would actually love to be a man found drowned in a pool of his own vomit at the age of 24. Occasionally, I lash out in a semi hedonistic direction and hurt myself.

You've got a communications degree and you've also lectured in the field. Is that right?

[laughs] In theory, yes. How old would I have been? About 20 and I lectured for a year in media studies. I got the job through a friend at Sydney tech. I was probably the youngest person in the class that I was taking and I knew diddly squat. I worked my arse off. I learnt a lot about media. I bought all these books and I'd never taught anything in my life. I don't think I was a very good teacher.

Are you surprised you haven't been confronted more with the question of censorship? Or have you at all? Did anyone ever come up to you at the ABC and...

Yeah, on one occasion, about sex. On the show [The Money or the Gun] we did on prostitution, we interviewed an American prostitute called Dolores French. We drove around in a stretch limo and she talked about how safe sex was a real problem in prostitution because a lot of clients didn't want to wear condoms. So she had developed a technique for applying a condom with her mouth while giving oral sex and I expressed quite natural dubiousness about this. I said, "Seriously? And they don't know?" And she said, "No. Stop the car, let's get some condoms and I'll show you." So, she demonstrated how to put a condom on one of the shotgun microphones and then she got me to do it and I failed miserably. And I think I said, "This proves conclusively what I didn't do to get a job at the ABC." A guy that was filling in for a middle management position censored it. I was f*cking furious. And, as it turns out, how it was censored is they just blacked out the screen, but left the sound. So it was twice as funny.

You've mentioned a couple of times that you hope what you do is never gratuitous. Why is that such an essential element? I saw you slapping John Hewson one time...

That was spontaneous. And there's a difference between spontaneous and gratuitous. Gratuitous is the joke regardless. Spontaneous isdealing with the situation. Basically, I could see that John Hewson was prepared to be the patsy. And I thought, "Okay, if you want to be a patsy, how much of a patsy do you want to be?" The bigger the stakes, the more of a challenge I find it. That time I just thought, "Okay, here we are, this guy wants to play at being a footballer. All these people are watching. The protocol is that you're really polite and deferential. F*ck that! Okay John, how far do you want to take it?" That is not to say I haven't been guilty of gratuitous humour but I do get quite obsessive about, "Why are we doing this? There should be a reason."

How do you think the Keating interview went on "Live and Sweaty"?

Not very well. Partly disapointing. But it was the most extraordinary and enjoyable saga getting him on the show. It's probably the most fun I've had in television. In about March that year [1992], I sat in my room with my computer, thinking of ideas for the season. The idea of celebrity ten pin bowling had come up and I thought, "Okay, let's go for it. Let's go for the Prime Minister." I thought, "If I cannot use 27 weeks of national television to get this guy on, then I don't know my trade." It was satirising what politicians do when an election campaign comes around. We were using the medium back at them. We all knew an election was coming and I kept saying, "Look, you're going to be tap dancing naked on bars all around the country so kick start it early. This is gratuitous, it's cheap, it's pathetic, it's tacky, it's you! C'mon down, Paul Keating!" The fact that the now attorney general, Michael Lavarch, read a motion in parliament, the fact that we got 12 000 signatures, the fact that I was out of the country and came back to discover that Keating was getting asked about it in press conferences - to me, it was wonderful.

So why wasn't the interview good? Because he wasn't in the studio?

He would have had a much better time in the studio because he would have been able to work the room.

Wasn't it funny that Rolf Harris revived his career with "Stairway to Heaven"?

For any negative thing I say about the media, that's probably the best example of why it's fantastic. Because this is a joke I thought of in my own home six years ago and at the beginning of last year I went to England and saw a country in torment because of Rolf Harris. It came up in conversation a lot. One guy said to me, "Only in England could this happen."

Would you accept a gold Logie?

[pause] No.

Would you appear on the cover of "TV Week" with Jennifer Byrne?

[laughs] Is there a word beyond "no" ?

Well, Andrew, best of luck with everything.

Thank you. I'm striving for the bottom.

Do you want another drink?

Two chocolate milkshakes? I mean, I could be anybody's.

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