Housos creator Paul Fenech and his band of bong-hitting dole bludgers move from screen to stage for their F#@cked in the Face Tour. Fenech plays Franky Falzoni in SBS’s hit show, Housos, about a Sydney housing commission community, and is no stranger to theatre – the creator-star of Pizza toured the country on the back of that show. He’s no stranger to controversy, either – Fenech's take on housing commission life launched a petition against it even before it aired last year. Time Out spoke to the Maltese-Australian stirrer about what to expect when the housos hit the Enmore for the Sydney Comedy Festival.
TV doesn’t always translate well to stage. How do you approach adapting your work for theatre?
We must have done over 300 shows around the country for Pizza: The Stage Show and that taught me a lot. We had wirework fights, stunts, explosions, mechanical things coming out of the stage… I gave them Ben Hur and there was too much. We realised that people want an extension of the TV show. They want the humour, they want the characters. I also learned to take the experience into the whole theatre. Video, audience interaction – anything you could possibly use to make it a great live experience, we used it. It’s like the UFC of theatre. There are no rules. Well… OH&S and that’s it.
I don’t imagine there will be much rule-following on a Housos tour bus.
There is going to be more swearing in one ride from Sydney to Melbourne than in all the state high schools, in about four weeks, in any part of the country. There’ll be tonnes of Maccas stops, too, and a lot of airing of the Ugg boots. And hopefully some of them will bring a deoderant or two this time.
What’s the writing process like for a show like Housos?
Basically I have to sit down, be disciplined, and write. I write the shows to about 65 percent so that they’re structured very well and there are a lot of good jokes. Then the performers come in and add another thousand percent with their ad-libbing and style.
Most of the ideas come from real life – I’m not kidding you. With Housos, I would say about 70 percent of the humour is real stuff that’s come out of the newspaper. For example, the joke: “How do you know you’re a Houso? You’ve got a hickie and a black eye at the same time. It might have started as a bit of truth from somebody who lives in Mt Druitt, for example.
Speaking of Mount Druitt… were you at all surprised at the controversy Housos stirred up last year even before it aired? Richard Amery, the member for Mount Druitt, penned an op-ed against the show and organised a petition.
I was. It was crazy. But because of the strength of the humour, it rose above all of the criticism and it actually worked for it. People were saying, “This thing’s terrible”; then people started asking, “What is this thing? I want to know about it.”
Do you court that kind of controversy?
No, look, I do everything [on the show] – write, produce, star. So I struggled just to make it. I push my shows as much as I can but… with Housos – and I’m not airy fairy, I don’t believe in magical energy – there was a lot of good heart behind it and it had a great result because of it. It couldn’t be beaten… It had something magical that pushed it along and saved it despite the controversy.
I don’t suppose Mr Amery has an on-stage cameo?
No, but the funny thing was, just by coincidence, my father was at Parliament House meeting with the Premier – he’s a lobbyist for things regarding the Maltese – and he saw Amery, and said, “Hey Dick, come over here. I’m Paul Fenech’s dad.” I thought my old man just on behalf of me should have thrown a punch. I’ll forgive him, but he could have.
I have a Maltese family myself, and they’re a pretty crazy, funny bunch. Do you get ideas from your family?
If it wasn’t for my uncle Sid, I don’t think I would have ever made Pizza. He really introduced me to that blue, broad, no-holds-barred attitude. And my relatives, they’re always laughing. The Maltese make fun of everything, but they’re not as nasty as the Italians.
Pretty typical Maltese response: to say you’re not as nasty as the Italians.
Yeah, well if the Italians see a dwarf they go, “Fuck, look at that short guy,” you know what I mean? I think the Maltese would go, [adopting a thick, inflection-rising accent],
“Ah, he’s a little bit short that one.”
Do your relatives laugh at Housos?
You know what the Maltese are like [assuming the accent again]: “There’s a bit too much swearing on that one!” When they saw Pizza, they said, “It’s a bit rude.” When they saw Swift and Shift [another of Fenech’s SBS shows], they said, “You should do it a bit more like the Pizza.” Now they see Housos, they say, “You should do it like Swift and Shift because it wasn’t so rude, and like Pizza because it was even less rude!”
“Housos” themselves seem to love it.
I’ve spoken to many online and in person and they’re really pumped that there’s some kind of representation. When I was writing it, I thought it was an incredible piece of fantasy. But believe it or not, it’s like a Disney version of the real thing. We’ve created a Walt Disney show for the housos of Australia.