No Snoozing Here – Rod Quantock, An Convenient Truth

Rod Quantock is perhaps known to most Australian’s as the eponymous floppy-hatted former mascot of Captain Snooze, but all that was just a cover (and cash-cow) for more subversive activities – redefining and refining the art of Australian satire. His last show, Court in the Act, was a chaotic shambles of audience participation poking fun at due process, while his latest show for the Comedy Festival, An Convenient Lie, looks set to go straight for the jugular of the body politic. In the lead-up to An Convenient Lie, Rod talks about how politics really does suck, the plight of the ABC, and his vote for master satirist of the age…

Rod Quantock - in spaaaaaccccce.

Hi Rod, its nice to be able to talk with you.

I’m just coming down with a cold or something, but anyway, that’ll be fine. We’ll get past that, and we’ll soldier on.

I don’t want to keep you too long – how long do I have you for?

How long do you have me for? Oh look, I’m 58 now Brendan, I’d hope another forty years, but who can tell?

I just wanted to let you know I came along to your last show, Court in the Act. I was involved on the evening where someone was going to stand trial for public frottage, but the case ended up concerning cannibalism in Albert Park.

[Laughs] Oh I remember, yes.

I want to talk to you about An Convenient Lie, but I’m curious about Court in the Act. Was it a difficult show to put together, was it a ball to do, could you speak about that for just a little bit?

It took a little bit of working out really but once I worked it out it just did what it did. It was dependant on the audience as you know from your experience of it, to choose the crime, and be all the players in the drama, so every night was different which always makes it a lot of fun. It took a lot of concentration and so on, but it was a very enjoyable thing to do.

Was that a new kind of approach for you? Had you done a show like that previously?

Oh, all my shows are like that really.

That was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to see you live.

Oh, ok. No, I used to do bus trips in the past which were entirely ad-libbed really, so it was not unique for me; and shows I do on stage they don’t involve the audience to that degree so I really enjoyed it.

It was a ball to watch, and I wish I’d been able to see it on more than the one occasion to see how mercurial that relationship can be between yourself and the audience, given the changing circumstances.

Obviously some nights are better than others, because some people who play the parts are better than other people, and yeah its – everybody went away happy and I think they all understand the premise of it as well, so they forgive me for the weaknesses of others really.

Just moving on to your new show, An Convenient Lie. The press release doesn’t really give a great deal away about it -is there anything you can let slip about what kind of a shape the show’s going to take, what its impetus is, what’s inspired you to get up for this one?

What inspired me? What inspired me, paying the mortgage is probably the first inspiration, the second inspiration is that it’s the Comedy Festival, and the third inspiration is you gotta entertain people. Look, it’s like, I don’t get to see many other comedian’s shows during the festival but it’s not about anything in particular. It’s about a lot of different things, but climate change gets a guernsey, Kevin Rudd’s in there, Peter Costello’s in there, I’m in there. So, you know, it’ll change night by night with the political circumstances, and it’s a ramble -I have a beginning, middle and end, but very rarely do I have an end. I’ve only ever had one end, I think, so ends are a bit hard to come by. It’s what it is, its about a lot of stuff, about what’s going on I suppose. But who knows what happens between now and when it opens. John Howard might be on another plane with smoke on it, and then we’ll really be in trouble.

Or an even cleverer media stunt.

Yeah, exactly right

There’s been quite a few commentator’s in the papers recently talking about how there hasn’t been a more absorbing time in Australian politics for as long as they can remember, with the ascension of Kevin Rudd to the Labor leadership and the polls, and what they seem to be suggesting for Howard’s leadership. Do you think that’s true, these observations?

Oh, look it’s exactly what happened when Latham came in. He came in at about the same time of the year as Rudd came in, he had the summer holiday period when Howard was away sunning himself on the beach or whatever. So Latham was in a very similar position to Rudd, Latham was much more vulnerable to the Liberal Party than Rudd is, so yeah it’s a different ballgame, but you know I think the polls show that whilst people prefer Rudd, the majority of people think that Howard will win again. That’s the way it is. There’s never anything new in politics. Howard’s not going to change his spots, Rudd is less of an unknown than Latham was, and people are impressed by Rudd. But there’s at least eight months before the next election, and people say a week’s a long time in politics, well, eight months is an eternity. Howard will be… Howard’s little gnomes that he has that dig the dirt, will be digging and digging and digging and Rudd will just have to watch every footstep he takes so from the point of view of a comedian it’s endlessly amusing. Sometimes you feel guilty because politicians are just naturally funny, and its sort of like stealing other people’s jokes sometimes. But I think people are interested at the moment because there are a lot of people who are very tired of Howard. Whether it’s enough people who are tired of Howard or not I don’t know, Australians are very much interested in their families and hip pockets, and that’s about as far as people’s concerns go. It won’t be decided on the War in Iraq, it won’t be decided on the refugees, it won’t be decided on David Hicks or Welfare to Work. It’ll be perhaps decided on the Workplace Relations reforms, because that’s hitting people hard, but yeah, as long as Howard can continue the myth that only he can manage the economy, he is more than likely to win.

The more I’ve seen of Kevin Rudd, he’s been very safe not to differentiate himself too much.

No, well that’s the problem for many people, that there is no difference.

I wonder if it’ll come down to a question of whether people want vanilla or French vanilla.

That’s exactly right, and in the end our politics has become almost presidential, and the leader’s the most important person because the average Australian doesn’t have an opportunity to go much below the surface of policies. If all you’ve got is a twenty minutes of the Herald Sun or the Age of a morning, and half-an-hour with the television news at night, you don’t know fuck all of what’s going on really. Look, people aren’t stupid, but equally people are self-obsessed, self-absorbed, and the sort of point-form delivery of issues is what they base things on and then just the experience of what interest rates are, how secure they feel in their jobs. I don’t think any of them have got any idea of what the future holds.

I read in a previous interview that there was some suggestion or someone had questioned you about running for the seat of Batman. I wondered what your thoughts are on that notion that sometimes an artist in the world, who is maybe working with the political metier, whether or not they in fact accomplish more in terms of generating discussion than elected politicians?

No, I don’t think they do. Look, a comedian like me who only has access to the stage makes a squeak I suppose against the foghorn of politics and media -it’s a very tiny contribution to things. I mean there’s no opportunity in the electronic media at all for political satire. There’s certainly… I mean, the ABC is terrified of bias, and so you can’t really do it properly on the ABC because if you say something about Howard you more or less… well, not only more or less, you have to say an equal amount about Rudd. Now, at the moment you probably could balance those two, but there are times when it’s the Prime Minister who is doing and making all the decisions and the policies and to be then forced by the legal department of the ABC to make a statement about the Labor Party who’ve done bugger all just undermines the whole principle of satire, it’s not something that can be constrained by ideas of bias and fairness and equity. That’s the nature of political humour. So, you know, you just keep chipping away, you hope that more people join you in the chipping. Governments change because Governments lose, its not because Oppositions win it, its because Governments lose, and Howard’s shaky at the moment. He may lose, I may claim a moderate amount of credit for that, but it would be a very tiny, tiny amount of credit for that. Look, I don’t endorse the Labor Party, either, I vote for Howard because he’s good for my career.

Who’s the master satirist? Who have you found, in their writings or in their work, who has really exemplified the form?

Look at the moment there’s the fantastic show from America called the Colbert Report.

Did you see his roasting of Bush? That was amazing.

Absolutely. I’ve got everything he’s done now. So I’ve got all his programs going back to the beginning. That’s extraordinary, it’s a brilliantly conceived show, brilliantly written and brilliantly performed, and its just fantastic. But again, with programs like that, I mean, he is remarkable in that he did get to that roast. I doubt that he’ll ever be invited back for something like that.

I actually feared for his life at one point.

And I think you know, what happens with programs like that is that people who agree with him watch it and people who disagree with him may watch it but just get angry and write a letter. I mean, the Republican Party is now funding their own tv satirical show, and prior to the last American election they actually funded a four-man comedy right-wing roadshow, live-show, which made jokes about Bill Clinton and Al Gore and so on, so increasingly people are -and it’s particularly true in America, because they have the choices -people are getting their political opinion from opinionated comedians, basically, and the Republicans are awake to that. Nobody in Australia under thiry would read a newspaper or watch the news, they get their politics from god knows where really. Now that Midnight Oil doesn’t give them their politics I don’t think there’s a band around to help them shape their views. It’s difficult, it’s a tough time, in Australia anyway, to get that sort of comedy to a wide audience.

Generally regarding politics, do you see politics as people from different paths in life enacting what they believe to be the best decisions, or do you see it as a consortium of shared interests or agendas? Are people being served or screwed?

Tick box B. Look, Bob Brown’s the exception that proves the rule, really. The process of getting through either major party’s pre-selection process at the branch level, and then ascending through the ranks into parliament and getting a position as a minister or god forbid a Prime Minister is a gruelling task of compromise all the way, and the best intentioned people who get in at the bottom don’t get very far because they’re not willing to compromise. So there’s very… I mean, you see it occasionally… Petro Giorgio has been, Howard’s pushed him to the limit on a couple of issues and uh, he’s really had to stand up and say ‘I’m against that’ and its done his electoral chances no harm at all. But in the main they tow the line, and if you look at a party like the Liberal Party over the last eleven years there’s not one person who hasn’t supported the suffering of people for their short-term electoral goals. They’ve all got the blood of the Iraqi people on their hands, they’ve all got the mental anguish of the refugees on their hands, they’re all stained by the Hicks trial, they’ve all got to answer questions about the health system, the welfare system -it’s just an appalling litany of people self-serving, and in a system that allows private donations to political parties and it accessible to lobbyists, you can see this country is run by big business and for big business. And even something as urgent as climate change, that can only be discussed by a task-force of coal-miners, so it’s just… we have been seduced over a period of a hundred years of democracy to think that the economy is what democracy is about. And if you sat somebody down and said ‘Well, look, for the last eleven years you’ve been voting for the party that has increased the wages of CEO’s beyond all justifiable dimensions, while at the same time you’ve been scrambling to pay your mortgage’, why in a democracy would you vote for a system that does that? It’s a two party system, people have learned very well how to control politics here, you know when a democracy is eight hours every four years, two minutes in a cardboard box in a primary school somewhere, and that’s people’s idea of democracy, well that’s just nonsense. So, I think people will never wake up to that; leaving aside party politics, regimes of the sort we have in Australia don’t change until they’re forced to change, really. And you’re hoping in a country like ours which is reasonably civilised there won’t be blood shed, but in other countries it is.

So why should we laugh about these things?

Nothing else to do.

Nothing else to do.

Nothing else to do. No, look, people who agree with me, it’s not a small minority, but it is a minority, and they come to my shows because politics and life in Australia depresses them, and being able to laugh about it with a hundred or hundred and fifty like-minded people at least gives you the feeling that you’re not alone. And laughter’s really just the flip-side of tragedy. You can sort of howl and weep and gnash your teeth about it, or you can laugh about it. Look, I don’t know what role the Arts ultimately play, I think the Arts here have been domesticated marvelously well, the Arts Council has been knobbled, the ABC has been knobbled, SBS has been knobbled -commercial television and radio are run by the people who support the Government, when you think about something like the Packer organisation having money in pastoral leases and mining and gambling and all sorts of things, and obviously the media, and you look at the legislation that’s passed in those areas it benefits the Packer organisation -it doesn’t benefit Aboriginals, it doesn’t benefit problem gamblers, it doesn’t benefit the environment, it benefits those people who have the power that Governments want in their pocket. So yeah, laughing about it is just one thing to do, I suppose. And if you’re a comedian and you choose to talk about politics, that’s your duty, that’s your contract with the audience… see, it’s depressing isn’t it?

Well I.. well, it is, but what’s really encouraging also is that it doesn’t have to be the kind of thing that does your head in, it can be something that, as you say, is already so depressing as it is that it’s a great thing that joy can be brought out of it, in whatever form.

Ah, that’s right, and the bottom line is there are some fantastic people all over the world who, you know… in Zimbabwe you get beaten up for it, here you don’t get reviewed and you get marginalised but there are people here who do fantastic things to sustain the world or change the world, and its those people who inspire you to keep going on. And a lot of those people come to the shows I do, otherwise I wouldn’t do it, there are other activities I have beyond the stage, so yeah, you know, human beings are remarkable and they’re not all stupid, and some of them are very passionate, very dedicated, and really quite amazing, I don’t know where they get the time or the energy or the commitment to keep going on but they do.

Well, many could say the same about yourself. That’s about twenty minutes, so I’ll leave you there, but I’ve found this a fascinating conversation.

Thank you very much, it was very interesting, I’m sorry I’ve got a cold, I’m not at my scintillating best at the moment, I’ve just come down with it a couple of hours ago, so thank you for your time, and if you see me at the show come and tap me on the shoulder and say hello.