First published on 7 Mar 2012. Updated on 4 Apr 2012.
The Bedroom Philosopher (Justin Heazlewood) and The Age’s Ben Pobjie deliver a musical comedy High School Assembly as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2012. It’s a one-hour flashback to a cringe-worthy musical concert set in the fictional Croxton High School. Awkward!
The music-comedy-writer will be exorcising his pubescent demons alongside an ensemble cast: Poet Laureate Telia Nevile and Sex On Toast as school band “The Housecats”.
Your show premiered last year. Can you give Time Out readers an introduction to what it’s all about?
I’m re-staging a high school assembly at a fictional high school, Cruxton High School. It’s a cavalcade of variety, with speeches and dance routines, bad songs, earnest poems. It’s trying to go back through my 15 years of school and play one last massive tribute to the whole hilarious nightmare that it was.
You seem to work with a lot of other Melbourne people in your videos and performances. In this show, you’re working with Ben Pobjie as the Principal, and Sex on Toast as the band. How did you get them involved in your show?
I staged the whole thing last year at the Thornbury Theatre, and my new kick is getting my friends involved. I just sort of became friends with Ben. Ben’s really funny –he’s probably the funniest person in Australia. I’m pretty sure he is. He’s just a mastermind. I had the idea for the whole assembly about five years ago with my friend, Josh Earl, and I just thought Ben Pobjie. I just saw him instantly as the Principal. That was probably the first thing that I thought of: “He has to be the Principal.” He does a lot of stand-up poetry gigs, and he has this sort of menacing presence in real life. There are very few people who have that level of menace, but also sort of idiocy. The thing about principals to me is that they’re really daggy, but then a bit scary as well. It’s that combo of dagginess and scariness that Ben has.
Like Ferris Bueller’s Day off, that kind.
Yeah, yeah. And Sex on Toast, they’re all ex-VCA musicians who really, really enjoy it. It’s like a summer holiday camp for musicians to be able to play badly on purpose. Their band is normally about sort of taking the piss with music. There are very few musicians you could actually ask to play music badly well, but they totally get it. And they all look like they’re sort of late teens, early twenties. It’s one of those things, though. I did a trial of it in June, and it could have gone either way, but everything just sort of fell into place.
How many characters do you play throughout the show?
I play about five, but I’m not in it for a lot of it, which I like. The school band have their moment. I’m sort of trying to concentrate on five power students, where I come on and really give my all and then get a bit of a break. It’s sort of variations on how at uni I was kind of a nerd, and little bit kind of a jock. I was a sporty nerd. You never see that stereotype in movies – you’re either a nerd who cannot play sports, or you’re a jock who is hopeless at English. But I played football and got really good marks in English and was in all the drama things. I was a bit like Rushmore. This kind of makes sense: I get to be the President and do a poetry report and play a song. I’m kind of doing everything.
You were involved with The Dresden Dolls when they were touring here. How did you become involved as their supporting act?
Amanda Palmer saw ‘Northcote (So Hungover)’, my “megahit” on YouTube, and liked it, and got in touch with me. She thought I was hilarious; I thought she was really cool. The tour was this utopian dream for an independent artist. I got to play to 1,000 people who were all listening, I got to be introduced by a headlining national act, which was just nuts. Arctic Monkeys don’t even talk to their supports during their whole tour. The crowd just bought heaps and heaps of merch at a time when I’m deeply in debt and have two credit cards. It was like the single best adrenaline shot to my performance, soul, right at the start of the year. The Dresden Dolls are so emotionally generous, they want to share everything with their fans. It’s just the American self-confidence is this blinding supernova of belief. For a self-defacing, cynical, self-deprecating Australian, it was a wonderful experience to bask in the opposite end of the emotional psyche, where they’re on stage asking them to text message their email addresses in. I can barely mention the fact I have merch for fear of selling out. It was actually a nice experience in “look what happens when you believe in yourself”, and you don’t have that Aussie tall poppy bullshit.
Americans love when people are happy and successful.
We tend to hate that. But it’s okay when you’re from overseas, though.
Amanda Palmer’s in town for other six weeks because she’s in town recording an album. Are you able to hang out at all while she’s here?
We’re trying to fit in Trippy Taco on Gertrude Street or something, but she’s pretty busy and I’m pretty busy. But we talk of collaborating, especially because I’m from Tasmania, and her last album is Map of Tasmania.
You’re from Tasmania, you lived in Canberra for uni, you’ve lived in Sydney, and you’ve been in Melbourne since 2004. Where else would you live if you weren’t here?
I can pretty much go Melbourne or Sydney. I can’t live anywhere else. Having been to all the other Australian cities too many times, I actually got to the point where I’d just done too many tours and had seen too much. I’ve only been to New York, it’s the only place I’ve been to outside of Australia, because my partner got puppetry work there. So I don’t think I’d go very where living anywhere [else]. I don’t like crowds or noise or smells. I find New York smelly, and I have a lot of trouble with that. I like a certain level of comfort. I think we’ve got it pretty good here.
Your most famous video is ‘Northcote (So Hungover)’, with almost 350,000 views. ‘Tram Inspector’ was released nine months ago and already has 20,000 views. Where do you think your YouTube fame is headed?
Certainly nowhere financial. I’ve made no money from any of those songs or views, which is an important thing to point out. Where’s it headed? I don’t really know. I’m just sort of, I don’t know, I guess I could keep making YouTube videos. I like making film clips because they’re kind of like short films. You get to make these small movies. It’s kind of like a sketch and a song in one.
Where did you get all of the props for ‘Tram Inspector’? It seemed pretty authentic.
That was a labour of love. I sort of hung around a lot of tram conductors. There’s this sort of small tram conductor community in Melbourne who still meet up and wear the original gear, and walk around handing pennies out of their little satchels. I sort of befriended a few of those guys. I borrowed the authentic hat and jacket. The green socks are extremely hard to get. The only thing I had to make was the green shorts – I wanted a certain level of short shorts, just to add a bit of raw sexual energy to the equation.
We saw the way that girl was responding to you.
You saw the way that paid actress was responding. But yeah, building the set was technically an extremely difficult clip to make. I needed to make a functioning pole dancing pole that also looked like it was a functioning part of a tram set. The guy constructing it had an amazing amount of things that had to work.
Your videos are appealing to people around the world. Why do you think they’re compelling to people who don’t even know what trams are?
Well, you know, people like to laugh, people like witty jokes and wordplays. Every time I have a remotely local reference, people are horrified, going “That won’t work outside Australia.” That’s just code for “We have a really low self-esteem in this country and we don’t think anyone else would have any interest or knowledge in us.” Which is mostly quite true. But the thing is, the #1 rule is you can’t underestimate the intelligence of your audience. People are really smart – even the dumb people are pretty smart – and they figure shit out. There are these wonderfully crap debates on YouTube [ in the comments] on ‘Northcote’, where people are going, “No one is going to get this outside of Melbourne”, and people going, “I get it, and I’m from America”, et cetera.
You just did a little video of all the best responses to ‘Nortcote’. What was that about?
I had to find a way to play ‘Northcote’ live without playing ‘Northcote’ live because I’m so bored of it. So I just played it made up of YouTube comments [to the video], which seemed a really apt statement. You’re reading all these articles on Believer on cyberhate, and how it’s becoming some epidemic of an appalling lack of empathy or spelling or manners or grammar. I thought it was a great moment to hold the mirror up to the online community, and repeat them back to themselves like a counselor would do. “You know, you should really hear what you sound like, because you sound like a judgmental knob.”
You’re not just doing music, you’re also doing a ton of writing. You just wrote The Bedroom Philosopher’s Diaries book, which was released a few weeks ago. Do you ever get in trouble for writing personal stuff?
No, not really. I go off the Dave Eggers model, which is I want to make my real life sound like it could be exciting prose. He always wanted to keep his memoir [A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius] as real as possible and not change a thing – I think he had working phone numbers in the first draft, where you could actually ring up the real people in the book. It was like a gimmick, but it was him saying, “this is real.” This book has me bagging out music venues, towns in Tasmania, comedians who I find a bit hard to be around. I’m a strong believer in a Robert Crumb quote, the cartoonist: “I’m not here to be polite”, which I think is really my approach to art. I think there’s far too much politeness, and dumbing down, and keeping it safe, and people changing names and toning down things in case they upset anyone. It’s just a big recipe for mediocrity and homogenisation. I don’t know. It’s like, “this is my truth, tell me yours”, to quote a Manic Street Preachers album.
Out of comics that are currently gigging around Melbourne, who else do you admire?
Josh Earl is like my best mate since Grade 8. We grew up in Tasmania together and now he’s doing exactly the same thing as me, which is surreal. But it’s very good to have a partner in crime. We have this sort of friendly rivalry level – I beat him to Spicks and Specks [on ABC], but he’s beat me to Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation [on Channel 10], so it’s a close tussle. It’s really good to see some really hilarious women coming through, like Zoe Coombs Marr, who I think is the female Woody Allen – to use an ironically misogynistic reference of a male role model to describe a woman, which is just baffling. But she’s just so witty and clever, she’s very exciting. Sabrina D’Angelo is this hilarious physical performer who appears in The High School Assembly show. Physical, non-verbal comedy is so rare, and to have a woman doing it is even rarer than that. Female clowning I think is the next big thing. And no, it has nothing to do with burlesque – the clown doesn’t get her gear off. I think that’s important.
Going back to how you talk a lot about your personal life, on your website you have your Long Story with every year of your life detailed. It hasn’t been updated since 2010.
Yeah, I know. You know why? I put it off. It’s not the sort of thing you are really bursting to do every month. So at the end of the year I go, “okay, I should really do last year.” But it’s the world’s easiest thing to put off; I get so busy. I was inspired by Andy Kaufman, the cult weirdo comedian who’s a big inspiration for me. I saw on some website his bio was made up of dot points of short stories he wrote when he was 10, and that’s where I got really inspired. It started off as a couple of pages, but then turned into this gigantic document.
It sort of feels like what they do in the US, where they send Christmas letters of all the cool stuff they did in the past year. Do you email it out to friends?
No way, no way. Friends don’t want to hear any more from me. Jesus. All my friends are performers, and we’re so competitive here in Australia. I spend most of my time laying really low, just apologising for being successful.
In your bio, you mention that your friends have for years been urging you to go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but so far it hasn’t happened. What’s in the works with that?
I don’t know. I just really value my mental health and bank account. Edinburgh’s always going to be there, and every year I figure out a different way not to do it. At the same time, I feel like I’d be more appreciated in the UK, because they really like weirdness and absurdity and shit.
And the Colonies.
Yeah, they love Australia. But the thing is, I’m facing some sort of career crisis. I’m 31 and I’ve been doing the same thing for 10 years, and I’m starting to not even know if this whole funny-songs-and-guitar thing is what I really want to do any more. I think I want to write a really serious memoir and maybe put out some body poetry or something, I don’t know.
Australians love giving nicknames, and I think most people don’t even know what your real name is. Do you ever get called things like “Beddo” and “Philo”?
“Beddophile” I’ve had stopped for legal reasons – I’ll end up on Current Affair, hiding out in Thailand trying to host a children’s show. I’ve got “Beddy Phil” going, which is kind of cool – it’s for people in the know.