Michael Chamberlin chats about John Cleese, performing to felons, and why he might work at McDonald’s
Not every Melbourne comedian has their own Wikipedia page. Is this run by die-hard Michael Chamberlin fans? There’s a great line, “Michael is famously fond of skinny jeans, which he firmly believes bring in the ladies.”
That’s funny. I don’t write it, and I actually have no idea who put that up. But I imagine the skinny jeans thing was one of my friends. There was a friend of mine, and we both graffitied one another’s Wikipedias on the same night, by chance, and we both put up the same [skinny jeans] reference. But no, that has nothing to do with me. I think I know who it might have been, but I can’t be 100 percent sure. But it’s definitely the nicest thing that’s been put on.
We see you started off with the RAW Comedy Festival way back in 2001. Was that what launched you, or were you doing comedy before then?
I’d been doing comedy for about three months before my first RAW heat. I kind of have two beginnings, in that I did comedy the year before, but I don’t really count that as a gig by the fact that two of my friends wanted to go a double act. I’d actually never heard of the RAW Comedy competition, but they wanted jokes. I wrote an act for them, and they didn’t do it and chickened out. So I thought, “Oh well, I’ll do it.” The jokes were about my life anyway – don’t really know how it would have worked as a double act – and so I did that as a whim, really.
What in your upbringing made you want to get into comedy?
The very base of it was that I knew a few people who did it, and I thought, “I could do that.” If anything, that was the very, very heart of it. But I always have been interested in stand-up. I never thought I’d actually pursue it as a career. But I always remembered what was on the TV as a kid and I’d be interested in it. At school, I would always try to write funny things in an essay, because I very quickly realised that when I wrote serious things people laughed at it. So I had to pretend it was funny, because they were giggling at it anyway. I remember doing a debate, trying to make a serious point, and people would laugh at me. I was sitting there doing debates – and you know how you pass ideas on for rebuttals and stuff like that – and I would pass them along and the guys would giggle. And I would pretend, “Yeah, that was meant to be funny.” So I think it’s the inability to do anything serious.
What is your show about this year?
This year it’s called Joy & Despair. Essentially, it’s a mapping out of my brain. I generally live in a world of joy and despair, highs and lows, with never a middle ground. It’s just discussing the various things related to that. I like to think I’m smart, but the reality is I’m most likely dumb. I’m brave, but a coward. There are thoughts that I know I should have, and then there are thoughts that I don’t want to have anything a part of. So essentially, it’s the life of contrast that I live. It’s got a background, in a way, of moving to Sydney last year – I’ve lived in Melbourne all my life. You’d never hear me say, “I have no opinion on that”, or, “I don’t really care”. I love it or I hate it.
You’ve performed a lot at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and the Adelaide Fringe Festival. You’ve also performed in Sydney. How do the different audiences compare?
I don’t know there’s a huge difference. Sydney and Melbourne are pretty comparable – they both have pretty decent rooms and decent crowds and the like. Sydney has a few more of the real outer suburbs. In Sydney, an outer suburb is a real outer suburb. They have more of an RSL, put a microphone in the corner, people playing pokies while you’re doing standup. I didn’t get to do a great deal of them while I was living there. The scene’s the same around the country. Last year I went to Hobart, which is cool. Brisbane strikes me as full of women who look like they won’t sleep with me and men who could bash the fuck out of me.
Speaking of Brisbane, describe your idea of a nightmare gig.
Can I tell you one about my worst gig? There was one I did when I’d been doing [stand-up] for about one-and-a-half to two years. I didn’t have any kind of skills to work out how to do this, but I hosted a night at a pub in Melbourne. Not long before the show, the guy running the night told me that the table at the front was a group of guys who’d all been to prison. So I got out there, and it was the one-year anniversary of the room, so I had the crowd sing “Happy Birthday”, which didn’t get things off to a good start. They were like, “shut up, mate.” It got to the stage where I would tell a joke, and the ringleader at the table would either laugh, or if he didn’t like it, he’d go, “Next!” It got to the stage where I would tell a joke – the crowd would look at the ringleader to see if he laughed, and if he laughed they would laugh; but if he said “Next!” they would look back at me [and wait for the next joke]. Everyone was just very intimidated by this guy who had done time.
Tell us a little bit about how you got into writing for John Cleese. How did that come about?
He did a series of shows at the Opera House in September of last year, and one of them was a mini gala of four or five comics presented by John Cleese. They needed someone to localise the script, since it had last been done in Montreal and had a lot of Canadian references – they needed someone to Sydney-ise it. He came out about a week before the show, and there were about three different sketches that he did. We rehearsed throughout the week. He’s a really cool dude. I must say, it’s just a bit of a thrill seeing John Cleese saying your words. That was quite cool.
You were on Rove as a writer for five years, and right now you’re writing for ABC’s Adam Hills in Gordon Street Tonight. Do you ever have bits of your writing go into your stand-up, or vice versa?
No, that doesn’t happen a great deal. When you’re writing for these type of shows, it’s all very specifically related to the show. And my standup probably has a bit more swearing. There’s not a huge amount of crossover. The only thing is that there’s not a huge amount of time to write standup because you’re working full-time, so you can’t concentrate on it as much as you like.
Which do you prefer, stand-up or writing comedy?
Stand-up, definitely. It’s because it’s you, it’s your thing. If it goes well, you did it; if it goes badly, it’s your fault. You just have so much more freedom. I have a lot of fucked-up thoughts I need to get off my chest.
Where do you want your career to go – and where do you think it will go?
I’d like to do standup 365 days a year, where anyone will have me – preferably English-speaking countries, where they’re more likely to understand me. Where it will probably go is I’ll probably work at McDonald’s when I’m 50, telling teenagers how I used to do standup. “I used to know that Adam Hills, I used to know that John Cleese. Here’s your Happy Meal.”