SAMMY J The politics of satire

Sammy J’s bringing all of his characters to Perth this Saturday, July 13 at the Regal Theatre for Major Party. MELISSA KRUGER had a chat to the Melbourne musical comedian born Samuel Jonathan McMillan, covering topics including which parliamentary building in Australia tastes the best, as well as the deeper, more philosophical side of things.

Looking at you: comedian, author, and musician – you’re a man of many talents. Tell us about Sammy J as a youngster… 

Ah well, the short answer is – nerd at school, couldn’t do sports, comedy as salvation.

I’d love to hear about your process around character creation. How do you go about creating a new character; what do you look to for inspiration?

This is a very high-brow question Melissa! I feel like I need to answer academically.

Full disclosure: I study theatre so my questions might be more about the core of what you do because I find it so interesting…

So do I. I’ve spent my whole life arguing about how all comedians are playing characters and are theatre performers. Lots of comedians would deny that and say they’re being themselves, but I don’t believe that for a second.

I feel like we are all performing as we walk through our lives every day…

100%. 1000% if I may buggerise mathematics. And not just that, I’ve thought about this a lot recently – we’re a different person with every person in our life. Again, some people would argue that we’re not but name any friend of mine, and when I’m with them alone I’m a different version of myself. Regarding character creation, I would like to say it’s all more conscious than it is, but realistically, with the characters that I’ve done on the ABC it really has come down to myself and my co-writers (having) an idea that makes us laugh, and depending on deadlines just going “alright let’s chuck this on TV and see if it flies.” Some of them like the Government Coach, who pretends he’s an AFL footy coach – that started as a 45-second sketch a few years ago which was just a simple “hey, wouldn’t it be funny if a footy coach was answering politician’s questions?” And that was it. I don’t watch or care for footy, but I jumped on YouTube and watched Damien Hardwick (coach of Richmond). He scratches his face in a certain way and he does this intake of breath every couple of seconds like he’s got indigestion and I just took that into a sketch and it took off and now that character lives on.

Which character is the most popular?

Playground Politics has been the thing that’s launched this current phase of my career, and there’s a lot of interest in that show from people watching it online. But then more recently Yoga Instructor is quite popular.

I love the Brexit one!

That one is bittersweet because, what is it – six million views now online? Which is my biggest video ever, but most of that is in Europe so it’s a complete misfire because they can’t come to my show!

You abandoned your law degree for performance, but what made you get into law in the first place?

I got better marks than I was expecting to, and I was still under the impression that you had to use your ‘score’ and not waste it. There’s the truth and then there’s that I’d like to say that I could have been a lawyer and that was a choice I made but it was actually just very hard. When I was studying law I was doing comedy at the same time and doing sketch reviews which was heaps of fun but by the time I abandoned it, it was an easy decision because I was getting 51%, I was distracting everyone else in class, and I’d had enough fun in the comedy world to want to pursue that.

I believe satire has great potential as a tool for promoting and bringing about social change. Tell me about your use of satire…

I’ve spent more time talking about satire than I ever thought I would recently. I still almost feel like a fraud being asked that question because I’m not an authority on it but then objectively I know that I must be.

You are! 

I’ve always loved comedy, and the reason I’m a satirist at the moment is because ABC wanted some daily comedy spots three years ago, and politics has always been my personal passion. I’m a total nerd and that’s what I follow. I’ve never come from the position of “satire can change the world and I’ve got so much to say.” It really is trying to make something funny out of the news and in the process, there can be some lovely moments of cutting social commentary. Have you ever come across Tom Lehrer? I keep kidding myself, saying that I have no origins in satire but the reason that I do what I do is because of Tom Lehrer, who was an American satirist in the 60s who used to sing songs about American politics. And there’s this full Batman Begins moment where my music teacher played me a song of his in Year 7 and that’s why I wanted to become a musical comedian. Irrespective of the political side of it, there’s this strange full circle where I’m doing exactly what I first wanted to do.

I was going to ask you about your inspirations, so it’s cool you brought that up…

He (Lehrer) was firmly of the view where he wasn’t trying to change things, just back on the satire point. I never think I can change someone’s mind. That’s for other people with a better platform and intellectual capacity, but I can make people laugh and I think making people laugh is often as good as changing someone’s mind because it releases people’s tension for a few seconds.

It’s also about making people aware of something that they might not have been aware of otherwise. Sometimes it might be people who are into comedy but not politics but then through the comedy, they become aware of social issues which might spur some action?

I think you’re absolutely right there and even if it’s just a conversation starter or even people who violently disagree, I’m very conscious and aware of trying to be balanced in all that I do. Because I’m on the ABC people will come to me and say “you’re a leftie” and I’m really not, I just look at the news and try to make it funny and I have no hidden agenda. People get really serious about it but even then I’m like that’s cool – people are still engaging in it and want to talk about things.

I saw your bit about the Christchurch massacre Monsters. At the end of it, you say maybe the real question isn’t what happened, but what happens now. What do you think should happen now?

It sounds like a cliché to say you were blown away by a response, but that was one of those few episodes that when I went to air I was genuinely nervous because you don’t know if it’s going to be the one episode where you’ve jumped the shark.

It was very brave…

I had two co-writers; it was a group effort. One thing I was very adamant about was that this needs to be a piece that could be played straight away again after any other terrorist attack. Again, I’m not an authority on this so it was an emotional response rather than an academic response, but it was just one little pebble thrown into the pond of bigotry. I have nothing to say about what should happen now other than that people should be less extremely violent. I’m very sincere in real life but as a comedian, you have to constantly suppress that at the risk of looking like a wanker.

Let’s lighten things up. Tell us about Major Party

This is a blatant attempt to see whether this whole new audience I’ve got from all the satire we’ve just been discussing, have seen me before live, and if they haven’t, whether they’ll pay money to come and see me. All those characters – Government Coach, Playground Politics, Yoga Instructor and more – all on stage and it’s been a lot of fun because I feel on stage at home more than anywhere else.

Finish this sentence for me: If I, Sammy J were Prime Minister of Australia, the first thing I’d do would be…

Rewrite the ABC charter to ensure Sammy J was employed for life at a far higher rate!

I’m sure you’ve been asked this before but what inspired the idea around licking every Australian parliamentary building?

I don’t get asked that enough! I wish I was. Most people just get confused and angry. Barry Cassidy narrated a documentary for me about it and one of my new audience members just wrote: “Nah mate, I like your satire but I don’t understand the licking stuff.” So, it was during the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 2016. Randy and I, my purple-headed colleague, had just been told by the ABC that we weren’t going to get a second series of Ricketts Lane which was our sitcom that we made that we loved dearly and so I was feeling quite down and I was just walking through Adelaide to do my show and stopped at the Parliament of South Australia and posted a stupid photo saying I was gonna start licking every parliamentary building, and then everyone laughed at it and wrote funny comments and I thought well I’m a man of my word and I’ve committed to it and I just started making my way around. Every time I was in town doing a show, I’d just find that parliament and lick it, and it became a thing, and I’m very proud of that thing, and no one can take it away from me!

Which one has tasted the nicest?

Definitely Hobart. The other ones are in cities with a lot of smog but Hobart’s by the ocean with that salty vibe.

Do you have advice for youngsters looking to get into comedy?

I’ve always said just to do what you find funny. Don’t try to copy other people. Find your voice. I feel exceptionally fortunate to have a career. At many times in the early days, I would have been the last person to think I would have one on account of my material but you have to keep finding opportunities to work out why someone should pay money to see you. When I look back at my early stuff the one thing I can say is I was always unique. Sometimes that uniqueness was shockingly terrible, but I was never trying to copy someone. I was just my odd little self and then the world turns, and you get older and people eventually come ‘round to you.

Wise words. OK, tell our readers why they should head along to Major Party…

I respect your readers’ ability to judge for themselves whether they’ll have a good time. Many of your readers won’t like what I do and I’m totally comfortable with that. In fact, if anything, I’d warn them against coming. I don’t want to ruin their night. They’ll have to look into their soul and if there’s a J-shaped hole then I can certainly fill it.

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