INTERVIEW: John Robertson
– By Allan Lear
John Robertson is an Australian comedian who hosts a Sky TV show about video games and has won awards for his dark, intelligent stand-up comedy. He kindly agreed to waste an hour talking to a stranger on the internet about his involvement with Dead Funny: Encore, but we strayed from the subject a bit.
I wanted to speak to you about Harry, the story you wrote for Dead Funny: Encore. How did you come to be involved with that book?
Robin [Ince, the co-editor] is a good guy, a nice friend. He had to listen to me at the Edinburgh Fringe one year through a wall – his dressing room shared a wall with my venue. And he would greet me by doing an impression of me, which was screaming “the Marquis de Sade!” That’s all he could hear through the wall, was me screaming the words “the Marquis de Sade!” during a very complicated routine I was doing about the Marquis de Sade hiring some prostitutes to fart into his mouth – which is a matter of historical record. So that was good. And when Robin was doing the first Dead Funny, a friend of mine called Brendon Burns – who’s a great comedian – said, you know, John would be good for this. So when the second one rolled round, he knew I’d be good because he’d heard me. You know? When you’ve heard someone screaming about history’s leading perverts through a wall, without provocation…and he’d seen me in my black suits with my skulls and all that, so you’d think, oh, he could write a horror story.
Was that the year your Fringe promotional poster was the photo of you with the gun in your mouth?
No, that was the year after. That was my way of remembering a friend who had committed suicide, because I am fucking sensitive.
I hadn’t realised! It just looked like you were daring yourself to say something stupid.
I kinda was! Three weeks of dancing through grief via comedy. I can’t recommend it as therapy. Mind you, the show was very good, but it’s a very noisy way of healing.
There’s a YouTube video* of you dealing with a heckler while grieving…was that from around this time?
Yes, that was the day before her funeral. My best friend had taken her own life and I went home for the funeral, and…well, she had actually got me into stand-up so I thought it was a fitting tribute that I work the night before. Also, I needed the money. So I went for it. And I was feeling, obviously, bloody dreadful…the worst feeling I’ve ever lived through. And as luck would have it, about a minute and a half into the show, some idiot made a noise. So I got to take all that grief out on him, and it was wonderful. Now that was very good therapy. It’s a wonderful thing, where somebody tries to attack you in a forum where they have no power whatsoever and what you have is the physical memory of what to do to people like that, because you do it every day anyway. So I got to make him burn, like the skin was literally being flayed off him, to the delight and merriment of everyone else in the room. Which must have been amusing…when you’re hurt and people around you are laughing, it must be one of the worst feelings in the world. I was very pleased with myself.
That must be tricky. A lot of people who are grieving throw themselves into work, but as a stand-up you still have to share a lot of emotion with your audience.
Yes. I am not one for throwing myself into work during grief; I get very productive, but I usually end up writing a whole bunch of notes about how I think the universe works and how nobody dies because we’re all made of carbon, and bullshit like that which is no comfort to anybody. When I’m grieving I ring up people who haven’t heard from me in years, because I think they’re going to die…and some of them are like, “why are you calling me? Oh, that’s very sad, John but…could you die? Fuck off!”
In fact, just after she died I was due to do a gig…I flew into London, and I was wearing a pair of my best friend’s shoes, because I found that very comforting. And I went into a gig that I was supposed to be headlining, and I turned up, and I saw that the other headliner who was on the bill was onstage already, and I thought, either I’m really late or the show has just started. Fine. And then the MC brought on an open-mic guy, who completely died, and then another one, who completely died. Then he got on stage and said, “Are you all ready for another act?” and the audience said, “No. We don’t want any more. We very much want to have a break and possibly consider leaving”. And without any warning – he didn’t even tell me he was going to do this – he said, “well, please welcome to the stage, he’s just flown in from Australia, it’s John Robertson”. I thought, amazing. You’re wearing your dead best friend’s shoes, you’re grief-stricken, you’ve just got off the plane and look – you’ve walked into the stupidest gig imaginable, where the guy who’s booked you to headline doesn’t seem to realise that he’s going to have to do a second half of the show without a headliner. Which he then did! My best friend was dead, but no-one died as hard as comedy did that night.
The friend who told you to die…that sounds a little like Brendon Burns.
No, no. Brendan was beautiful. There was a mental health fundraiser going on, and I was getting a little bit annoyed, because there’s a history of clinical depression in my family. I don’t have it, which is a miracle. But I was using that photo with the gun as my avatar. And I spoke to this charity to say “what’s a boy got to do to play the mental health fundraiser” and Brendon tweeted “take the fucking gun out of your mouth!”
So you knew Robin personally and Brendon put your name forward…
Brendon put my name forward before I knew Robin. And then I met Robin, and Robin is wonderful to run into in the street. Because, one, he shouts and I shout, so that works. And two, he makes references to films he thinks you’ve seen…and he’s right. I love that guy. He was talking to me about how he thought he’d got into the books of Philip K Dick…I was fascinated by that, because I had A Scanner Darkly in my backpack. “But Robin, how late is too late? I’m thirty! Have I missed it?”
What was the inspiration for writing Harry?
Well, the inspiration was a couple of things. Firstly, there was a deadline, which helped enormously. The second thing was there was a torrent of loathing that I wanted to express, which is something very valuable. I wanted…I used to read a lot of things like William Burroughs, mainly because I was quite turned on by the sexual perversity and depravity, but also because I was really into the beatniks’ idea that things should be written very quickly and in one burst and never stopping, and I really believed that right up until I actually started writing. And it does work very nicely, but you still have to go back and edit. But I was thinking a lot about the concept of depression, because it’s a fucking monster; my father had clinical depression. So what I wrote was about this incredible home situation where the father is trapped with a monster of incredible proportions, and yet everyone around him continues as though it’s normal. It’s not a metaphor; I was just interested in how it can completely dominate someone and the rest of the world doesn’t even notice. So at no point in the story does anyone say…Jesus Christ, look at this huge shambolic abomination here! It’s just this father, and he just suffers. And the other thing is that I’m a huge sadist, so I just like hurting things. If I’d have been around in the nineteenth century, and in France, I could have been in on the ground floor of the whole sadism thing. Shown the Marquis de Sade how to do it. But if you read his books, the main thing that comes across is that he must have been really, really dull.
I had heard that he comes across as a bit pathetic and inadequate.
He was! He was an obese, impotent arsehole. The nicest thing he said in a letter to his wife, because she was buying dildos that she was having made for him in a public square, and he sent her a letter complaining that he’s sent her all the specifications for these dildos and the ones she gets him are too narrow. It’s quite a gap, from the heights he’d once commanded to moaning to his wife about the girth of his dildos.
Now, when I read Harry, I didn’t realise it was about depression. I thought it was about…children.
You know…there’s this awful creature that’s devouring its parents alive and everyone around acts like that’s how it’s meant to be.
That’s fantastic! I had never looked at it like that. But isn’t that a great thing that fiction can do? I’m really tickled with that. But all I wanted to do was show this home where there’s this guy…who lives with this thing. And I wanted to show you bits of the thing. And…god bless Johnny Mains, he’s a great editor. As is Robin. But I sent them this story, and the only note I got back was, they said – hey, you’ve put a capital letter in quite early. Do you want to keep it in, or take it out, and have no punctuation at all until the stop at the end? So I said “yes, please”. That was great – they corrected my absence of grammar by making it even more absent. But at no stage was there any sense of, oh, you’ve got to do this, you can’t do that. So the way I went about writing a horror story – god bless the smartphone, because this is a good thing to do – you go up to somebody backstage and say, I’m writing a short story, will you have a look at this for me please? And then you wait and see how long it takes them to put it down. If they put it down really fast, then you know you’ve got it right. The best reaction was my man Aaron Edwards Hall, who is a fabulous act…and he just put it straight down, and shuddered. He was like, “that’s horrific”!
The other thing is I rang a friend in the dead of night, which is the perfect time – I knew she’d be up – and read it to her down the phone. Apparently Spike Milligan used to do that – ring people up in the small hours and say, I’ve got a poem, do you like it? Fine. And he’d put the phone down. So I did that, but instead of a funny poem, it was the gentle sound of an abortion in your ear.
Well, not all of Spike’s stuff is light-hearted; there’s a lot of depression in some of his poetry.
Oh, yes. Milligan has the rare distinction of having written the same poem, once when he was high and once when he was low. There’s the low version, which went “A baby rabbit with its eyes full of pus/is the work of scientific us”. And he wrote it again when he was high, and it goes “Rabbits today/Are very scarce, they say/My diagnosis?/Myxomatosis”.
Incredible…how the same thing looks so very different depending on your state of mind. Do you know Steve Aylett?
I love Steve Aylett!
He has a line about how murder is one man killing another, but war is the other way round.
Steve Aylett’s amazing. That was one of the first things when I moved to the UK…I lived in Brighton for a few months, and I went down to the Waterstone’s there. They had a section with all the local authors in it, and Steve Aylett was there as a Local Brighton Author. I was just like…Jesus Christ, now we’re talking. The equivalent back in the day for me was an author called Tim Winton, he writes very long, discursive novels about childhood in Australia that I had to read in school because they were about – not my childhood, I never encountered any of it, but my teachers’ childhood. He’s the man who’s always most in danger of writing The Great Australian Novel – or already has done, with Cloudstreet, which is very long and rambling…very enjoyable, too, but it was everything you were told about postwar Australia all the time, what a paradise it was. We went to see him do a talk when we were kids, and somebody asked him how much money he’d made from writing and he said, “I’m very happy because this is the year I could finally afford a tumble-dryer”.
Ah, postwar Australia…so fantastic that Barry Humphries and Clive James got out of it the second they could.
I know! And those were the guys that I liked. Always have. And you’ve got to hand it to them…when you grow up as a kid and you’re a fairly chubby thesp, it’s amazing how many other chubby thesps there are to be your idols. Humphries is incredible. And Clive James…his translation of Dante is incredible. I’m always buying these modern translations of ancient masterpieces, and they always say that they’re written in modern English to recapture the wild spirit of the original, and all that means is that half the book is footnotes explaining why it was all very funny a thousand years ago. You know, Cervantes wrote this because it’s very funny in chivalric heraldry…well, that’s fucking amazing, when do we hit the windmills? Another seven hundred pages? Screw that. The only place I want to see an asterisk is in a Terry Pratchett book, where it leads to a very funny joke**. But Clive James’s Dante…Jesus, that’s good. And it rhymes! He actually says at the start that the only way to make up for the fact that it’s not in Italian, which is a very lyrical language, is to make it rhyme.
Thinking of Terry Pratchett, that reminds me of what you were saying about the beatniks churning out stream-of-consciousness writing…Pratchett always said that you should try that, because it might leave you with a lot of editing, but at least you’ve got something to edit.
Yes. Actually, that was the other note I got back from Robin and Johnny, they liked the story but they said it was a bit short. So I wrote in the dream that the father has, and that was the sequence with the Christmas festival and this hideous image of the guy driving off with all the bondage men…I always see that as a slapstick thing, the kind of hideous visual joke that the League of Gentleman probably would have done if they’d had the money.
But also quite William Burroughs-y, with the fetishistic male figures…
Yes. Well, I am a massive pervert. And I don’t particularly like boys…in fact, I don’t care for boys at all, but that’s why I kill them. And I’ve been meaning to say this about the story, but nobody’s asked me, so I must tell you…I’ve read two short story anthologies in my life, one of them when I was ten years old. There was a story in it called Snuff***. Growing up where I grew up there was no way I could have known what a snuff movie was…there was certainly no-one who would tell me that it was a film in which somebody really died. But I read this story about two kids watching a video of this awful house fire, and this little baby crawling around in the fire…and then the guy who was showing them the video turns round and says “that baby was me”, which as a kid blew my mind! It was such an incredible revelation…it didn’t occur to me that it was just something you could say to people.
Then three years later, I was thirteen, and apparently nobody kept an eye on what I was reading, because I read Irvine Welsh’s The Acid House****, and there was a long thing in there about a guy hanging himself. Those have stuck with me, and that’s what I wanted to do with Harry – something that will stay with you forever. You’ll read it and it’ll be, oh, Snuff, suicide, Harry.
The one that does it for me is the end of Gerald’s Game, by Stephen King. Have you read it?
No, no. The only Stephen King I’ve really read is On Writing – the one where he tells you how to do it. And it’s great stuff – it’s just, read Strunk and White, then be direct. Don’t try and be fancy, just make people care.
The only thing for me about Stephen King is that his endings tend to be a bit…you get to the big reveal of the monster, and it goes, “oh, it’s magic!” Or like with It, you know, fuck me, it’s an alien. I don’t need to know that.
I think the film of It is particularly bad for that. Now it’s a spider!
Yeah, why couldn’t it just be a clown? A mental clown is scary enough.
I was going to ask if you’d read much Stephen King, because the style you used to write to Harry in put me in mind of stories like The Raft. And ee cummings.
I’ve never read either of those guys. I’ve read about half of It; my knowledge of King’s endings come from friends who have read his stuff. And ee cummings…I just know he existed, and didn’t use upper case.
I’ve spoken to Robin and Toby [Hadoke] about comedians and horror, and they suggested that the mindset of a comedian and a horror writer are very similar. Do you find it comes from the same place for you?
Well, it’d be interesting to see, wouldn’t it? Because it comes from a place of both great passion and great detachment. The detachment is the craft, it’s putting words together, and the passion is the instinct to put that thing on paper and kill it. And also the drive to make all those words play with each other nicely, you know, the fervent desire to see what happens there. And I’ve always had an enjoyment of deeply satisfying violence. When I was small I’d be watching films with my mum, and you know how sometimes in a film, a woman who’s put up with some guy’s shit all the way through the film – at the end, she just punches him in the face? And my mum always said, “Good!”, so I was always under the impression that was the correct thing that should happen. I was never surrounded by violence as a child. All that tragedies that occurred was that people died, you know, some of them self-terminated, things like that. But for me, violence was something of an intellectual exercise. And when that happens you’re very lucky, really lucky. And you get to see violence as a form of entertainment. Which is possibly why I’ve ended up as big a pervert as I am. I’m on first-name terms with the guys who run the whip shop.
Anyway, thanks for talking to me, but this is intruding on time that I had reserved for a threesome.
** I’m in two minds about the YouTube link now.
*** I’ve been unable to trace this story’s author so if anyone knows, please let me know in the comments.
**** Welsh’s first short story collection, published by Vintage, 1995. The story John’s referring to is probably the one also called Snuff.