On Air: A couple of fair-dinkum stirrers

In trying to make each other laugh, Roy and HG manage to keep Australia - and soon, Britain - in stitches.
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The Independent Culture
I've always been drawn to ideas, figures and issues that shit me," says John Doyle, one half of the legendary Australian comic duo Roy and HG. "If something shits me, I know it's going to amuse me. At the moment, William Hague, following his recent address to the Conservative Party, gave me the shits mercilessly."

"Yes," chimes his partner Greig Pickhaver. "There's nothing funnier than somebody relentlessly pursuing an idea. At the moment, Clinton is becoming really funny. The more seriously he apologises to the American community, the funnier he looks."

Doyle and Pickhaver (alias "Rampaging" Roy Slaven and H G Nelson, sporting legends, media pundits and now variety stars) have, over the past decade and a half, had Australians in stitches with their intemperate opinions on every subject under the sun, first on a four-hour Saturday afternoon radio programme, This Sporting Life, and then on television in Club Buggery, their own unique spin on the Saturday-night variety show.

Now they are bringing a version of this show to British TV with Planet Norwich ("Buggery has a different meaning for the British," explains Doyle, "but in Australia the name really means buggered, rooted, had the dick, nothing more. Echoing a culture that we thought was buggered - that is, the world of variety").

This is not the first time that British audiences have seen the pair, however. They had a regular short spot in Ben Elton's latest series, shown this summer, a three-programme run on Anglia TV last Year (Roy and HG's Bughouse), and appeared in one of the more puzzling beer ads (and that's saying something) with their "Tickle it wrigglers" campaign for Fosters Lager. The last-mentioned "was puzzling for us," says Doyle. "No matter how many ideas we tipped into the the funnel of that campaign, the drips that came through the bottom bore no relation to the ingredients we had put in. We wiped our hands of ownership of it pretty early in the piece."

Not that they are bitter. On the contrary, the pair in the flesh are as little like the stereotyped comic as you can imagine.

Most obviously, they are funny in real life: the bar of the Groucho Club where we met echoed with laughter for the duration of our early-morning interview, as the pair swapped witticisms, flights of fancy, and well- considered analyses of everything from Seinfeld, to Australian versus British humour, to sport, to William Hague and Bill Clinton. Indeed, it is their personal rapport that is the reason for their success as comics. As Doyle says, "H G (alias Pickhaver) amuses me enormously. I don't know how, but he manages to entertain me as much as he did 10, 15 years ago. It enables me - or it enables Roy - to be either straight or funny, depending on how he reacts."

Their main tool is verbal facility. On radio, especially, the pair are able to sustain long improvisations which develop a manic rhythm and a twisted but rigorous logic which can be breathtaking. The shorter spots on TV also allow this, but the pitch rises much more quickly. When it works, it can be dizzying.

"We like drilling something to death," says Pickhaver. "We can't say enough. We make mountains out of molehills and vice versa. We make the trivial serious and the serious trivial."

"And we never disagree with one another" adds Doyle.

Even in the short excerpts on Ben Elton's programme, the pair demonstrated the key to their humour: it is very rare to see an act who spend so much of their time trying to make each other laugh. Their method is based on structured ad lib.

"There's a little bit of groundwork," says Doyle. "We know what we're going to talk about. What we don't know is what we're going to say." "You've got to allow yourself to be genuinely surprised by what the other says," adds Pickhaver. "You can't fake surprise."

"Yes, replies Doyle. "It rises and falls really on our ability to amuse each other. If we can do that we just might to be able to amuse somebody else." Contrary to the laconic image, squeezing out words Crocodile Dundee- style only when necessary, Australians are great talkers, especially in Sydney where the pair live and where they first started working together. And they have a vibrant slang tradition.

"Language is really all we have," explains Doyle. "We use it as a sort of battering ram, brutal and blunt." While some of the slang may be lost on British audiences, the energy and inventiveness should carry viewers along. Their energetic use of language is complemented by their almost- surreal fictional personae: "Roy Slaven" is a former world-class sportsman, and many of the pair's most hilarious routines involve Roy's recollections of this rugby league test, or that US open, or an Ashes tour, or the Olympics, in which, of course, he took part.

He is the former player as sporting commentator, who always knows everything, and whose strongest conviction is that things will never be as good as they were in his own day ("Think of Jimmy Hill," Pickhaver thoughtfully suggests). "H G Nelson" is, in the language of sporting commentary, the "ball-by-ball man" (as opposed to Roy, who is "colour"); an excitable character given to hysterical mood swings, sometimes in the course of one sentence. Within this classic structure, the pair have the freedom to improvise, both as a duo, and in the celebrity interviews which are an integral part of Club Buggery/Planet Norwich.

As viewers of Clive Anderson or Mrs Merton know, the spoof interview can be a minefield.

There is often a misanthropic edge to these encounters, where humiliation, especially of the famous, is part of the aim, with the guest either sitting like a rabbit in headlights, or used rather crassly as the butt of scripted jokes. With this pair, though, though the former can happen ("Martin Brundle [interviewed on Roy and HG's Bughouse last year] was wood," says Pickhaver), the latter is less likely. The main reason is that Roy and HG are more like super-charged versions of Doyle and Pickhaver in real life, and they are a couple of nice blokes with no agenda apart from making each other laugh.

As Ben Elton says, "They are stirrers, they are brilliantly anarchic, yet curiously sane. And there's never any malice in their act."

As for the duo's expectations of their British season, they are supremely level headed.

"We've been invited to come here, and we look on it as an adventure," says Doyle.

I wonder if they have William Hague's phone number?

Roy and HG's 'Planet Norwich' is on Channel 5 at 10.50pm on Friday

Heroes of Oz Comedy

AUSTRALIAN HUMOUR has a reputation as being "dry", deadpan, corner- of-the-mouth type stuff. But the earliest famous professional comics were larger-than-life characters like the vaudeville performers Mo (Roy Rene) and George Wallace.

The first comic to achieve fame outside Australia was Barry Humphries, although he began here initially as a comic actor, taking such roles as Fagin in Oliver in the West End. His comedy specialised in wicked and satirical suburban grotesques, the most famous of whom was - and is - Dame Edna Everage. One of the keys to Humphries' appeal for British audiences is the way his characters coincide with British prejudices about Australians. But his subsequent fame among Australians, at least initially, had a different cause - his vein of deprecation, even self hatred, for the narrow, parochial and arrogant suburban culture, and with which many Australians, especially in the Seventies, identified with.

Paul Hogan had some success in the 1970s and 1980s on British TV: once again his "Ocker" character chimed with British expectations - laconic, work-shy, intelligent but unintellectual.

The character of Crocodile Dundee with which Hogan subsequently achieved international fame in the 1980s was a more calculated version of his old "Hoges" character, a little older, a little wiser.

There was a vibrant TV comedy scene in the 1970s, but its products never really left Australian shores. The most significant character was Norman Gunston (played by actor Garry McDonald), an excruciatingly awkward chat- show host, who interviewed real celebrities live on air - the first incarnation of the spoof variety show. Gunston is the spiritual, if not the actual, ancestor of Mrs Merton, Alan Partridge and Roy and HG.

Today, there are a number of successful stand-ups working in Britain (Mark Little, Jimeoin, Brendan Burns, Matthew Hardy), and this year's Edinburgh Festival featured talented newcomers Oz.dot.com. As Phil Davey, an Australian comedian who appears regularly on the British stand-up circuit, points out, it is possible to be a professional comedian in Britain, but not in Australia. "I'd be lucky to work twice a month in Australia, whereas here I work four, five, 10 shows a week, and there's also lots more TV work as well. It's a bit like being a self-employed plumber, except you make people laugh instead of putting your arm down their s-bend."

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