ThreeWeeks guest editor Andrew Maxwell talks to Sammy J about working in comedy, the benefits of Edinburgh, and a foul-mouthed purple puppet.
AM: So Sammy, let’s start with something simple, how many times have you been to the Fringe?
SJ: This is my fifth time at the Edinburgh Fringe. Well, my fifth time as a performer. My first was as a backpacker, checking it out. Just after school, I travelled back to the motherland, roamed about with a backpack and a sandwich.
AM: Were you already performing by that time?
SJ: No, not at all I was a pimply 18 year old, and I was hugely into comedy and stuff. But I got the dates wrong, because I didn’t quite understand that the Festival and the Fringe were different things. So I turned up on the last day of the comedy, and then had a week of opera left. One night I saw Jeff Green up at Assembly, and I saw ‘Late and Live’, hosted by Daniel Kitson, with Adam Hills performing. That was definitely one of those sort of nights that you remember, you know? So I really wanted to make it back.
AM: He can be quite a spiky character Kitson, but I take my hat off to him. The year that he pretty much owned ‘Late and Live’, there were some incredible, incredible nights. That kind of thing, that’s a lot of the fun of being in Showbusiness. It’s a total meritocracy, and everybody has to scam their way in. One of the things I love about stand-up and live comedy is that there’s nobody’s surname that is going to make a difference. You can have all the connections, but when you take to that stage, it’s just you, them, and whatever you have you can bring to the table.
SJ: It’s also awesome because you can develop and change. My first year here, I wasn’t really ready to do the Fringe, but I had an opportunity to do a show in the Spiegel Garden and I just sang songs on the piano, and it was good fun, and I had some good times. It wasn’t where I saw myself being in my head a few years down the track, but I just got amongst it and had a ball, and people form their impressions of you along the way. It’s only now, this year and last year, with my solo stuff, that I’m actually doing stuff I’m properly proud of and think is actually worthwhile, and that’s Edinburgh: it’s sweet that you get that chance to come back and keep on developing. People keep giving you time.
AM: It’s true. I always think that when the London media big wigs come up in the last week, it might add a little bit of shine, and you might get a bit more attention from TV people in the Autumn if you’ve had a good run, but actually, the best thing you take from the festival is that by the end, as a comedian, you’re so match fit, aren’t you?
SJ: Massively, and then any gigs you do for the month after Edinburgh are going to be your best. Then Edinburgh stays in my head the whole year, even when I’m back in Australia. Every time I sit down and write something, if I’m not writing for a local audience in Melbourne or Australia or the Southern Hemisphere, I’m writing for a global audience, and that’s because of Edinburgh, because your audience is from everywhere, so it just sets that bar, and the bar stays lodged in your head.
AM: Now you are a Fringe regular, do you theme up your shows much?
SJ: Yeah I do. I’m learning what I’m good at and what I’m bad at. I enjoy telling a story. I wouldn’t call myself whimsical but I enjoy having somewhere to start and end, and that’s where my jokes come from. I don’t really do a lot of gags as such, I play around more with linking through stories and situations. My current solo show starts off with a story from when I was 11 years old, and I wrote a story book, and sent it to publishers to try and get it published. Fucking ridiculous – a bullshit, story printed on our dot matrix printer and I sent it out to publishers.
AM: Where did this come from? Are you from a creative background?
SJ: No, but my mum encouraged me. Well, I think she was just outsourcing her criticism, really, getting professional publishing houses to kick my ass instead because I wrote this story and I was really proud of it. You’re looking at me like it was a real story, it was a terrible 3 page 11 year-old vomit onto a piece of paper. Anyway, that’s where it starts, and I talk about how I’m going to try and rewrite that children’s story now, 17 years later. And the show is all about opening all the rejection letters.
AM: Excruciating! It’s kind of like the frisson and the tension at the Fringe you get with the review culture here, and how these days the punters are all reviewers because of Facebook and Twitter. Presumably that’s the same of Australian festivals?
SJ: There is, there’s just as much tension and anxiety and all the rest of it. But there’s not quite the same the critical mass that there is in Edinburgh. I think it’s a good thing, that there are so many publications and blogs and all that going on. It means that really outstanding stuff can really rise to the top, if you’ve got twenty different publications all say it’s great: suddenly the reviews actually mean something, whereas if you’ve only got one or two newspapers doing reviews, you can’t really trust them at all.
AM: It’s incredible how things kind of get shuffled to the top, almost like a card trick. That’s how I first became aware of you, with your ‘Forest Of Dreams’ show.
SJ: And that’s how we first became aware that we had anything to write home about, because suddenly our posters were stacking up with little lines of stars and good quotes. I’m not anti-review in any way. Most reviews I’ve had I think have always got a good point. We’ve had bad ones that I agree with, and good ones that have been too generous.
AM: Can we bring up the ‘puppet’ word now? I am curious – how did your work with Heath, and the puppets come about?
SJ: Heath McIver has been a puppeteer for about twelve years, he’s done all sorts of touring and ‘Walking With Dinosaurs’, and TV stuff. That’s been his profession. He was also doing some comedy spots around Melbourne with Randy, the purple puppet, who was his main mouthpiece.
AM: How would you describe Randy?
SJ: The short answer is he’s a foul mouthed purple puppet; the long answer is he’s a fully fledged character, he’s got an ex-wife, he’s got an awesome story, and there’s a quite beautiful piece about how he became sober. Every time I see Randy, I stop thinking of him as a puppet within 20 seconds because he’s saying such interesting stuff.
Sammy J’s shows ‘Ricketts Lane’ and ‘Potentially’ were performed at Underbelly during Fringe 2011.