Pat McCaffrie contrasts refreshingly with the leaders and people of influence that he discusses in his Fringe show, Don’t Watch the News, Watch Pat McCaffrie. The Adelaide-based satirist is a rare barbed wit – clearly sharp as a proverbial tack, and yet a gracious (and graceful) conversationalist. As I arrive to interview him, he’s already sitting outside the café, scanning a couple of newspapers.
I lead with perhaps the most obvious question:
How is it, doing political comedy now that Tony Abbott’s gone?
Pat McCaffrie: It’s good, actually. I’ve had this conversation a lot – a lot of people say, “Tony Abbott’s been a gift, it must have been great for you” – but I didn’t actually have many Tony Abbott jokes, because a lot of the time the things that seemed obviously funny weren’t great fodder for comedy. I think when he ate an onion, it was already so funny that, as a comic, you can’t go very far with that.
Sometimes it’s easier to make fun of things that are more boring, because the audience isn’t expecting you to go anywhere with it. Certainly, in my show, there’s a whole bit about Tony Abbott losing his job, but it’s more about the people around Tony Abbott than Tony Abbott himself. The only real time I talk about him is when he talked about faxing his resignation through – I just thought that was quite emblematic.
I suppose the hard thing is, I haven’t figured out how to make Malcolm Turnbull funny yet. I think the reason you’re able to make someone funny is because the public has an idea of who that person is, and with Tony Abbott, that was that he was a loose cannon, a bit of a nutjob; whereas with Turnbull, I still think the public is forming its view of him.
There was a Newspoll today that has the two-party preferred at 50/50 – now I find it hard to believe that that’s anything other than a rogue poll, but yeah, I think the honeymoon period will end. And I said at the time when he took over, Turnbull’s problem would be how many – because he’s sort of captive to the right, he doesn’t want to piss them off, so the problem he’s got is: how much of his pro-action on climate change, pro-gay marriage stuff can he ditch to mollify the right, while people still actually want to vote for him?
I suppose the more he throws away, the more it’s just like “he’s just the pretty face”?
PM: Totally. And people start asking themselves “why is it necessary to change at all?”
So, if you’re talking about “boring” stuff (your words, not mine), do you find that you have to become partially an educational show just so your audience are on the same wavelength?
PM: Yeah certainly. And the trick to that – I’m always working on this – is the economy of words. What you want to do is introduce the audience to an idea as quickly as possible, and that can be tricky. So for instance, the debate at the moment around something like ‘negative gearing’ – it’s a very difficult concept to convey to people in, like, a sentence. So yeah, you’re right – if the audience doesn’t understand where you’re coming from, they’re not going to laugh, so you do have to let people know what you’re talking about.
Sometimes that’s easier than others, you know. Something like gay marriage is a very easy subject to introduce an audience to; or even, in a sense, the Islamic State is a very easy thing for the audience to comprehend (though they may think it’s a bit iffy territory). I remember I wrote some stuff late last year, at the middle of last year, about the recognition of indigenous Australians in the Constitution, and that, I found a really tricky thing – I ended up just dumping it, because I was like, I don’t think I can convey this quickly enough. So yeah, there’s a bit of education, but only as much as is necessary for the audience to get the joke, and then you move on.
I mean I kind of phrased the question that way because that’s the angle that Colbert and Stewart used to take –
PM: – and I was about to say John Oliver, particularly, because what he often does, you’ll see his main segment will be like ten, twelve minutes on one issue, and why you should care. So like – for some really good examples of that recently – his most recent episode I think was on voter ID laws, he’s talked about prison statistics, that sort of stuff. It’d certainly be easier to get across to people the concept of recognition of indigenous Australians if I had ten to fifteen minutes onstage, but when you’re trying to do it in five minutes at an open mic night, it gets a bit trickier.
And I guess part of keeping political material contemporary is that you must also have a much quicker turnaround than other shows?
PM: Yeah, I mean I should stress that none of this is me saying that political comedy is harder than other comedy. The process is the same – it’s just that I’m basing myself on the news, where storytellers might be basing themselves on things that have happened to them.
But yeah, there are jokes you have to stop telling after a while. I remember one that went a lot quicker was Adam Goodes, it was one of those things where I wrote seven or eight minutes about it, and did it two or three times in a month – but by the third time, everyone had an Adam Goodes bit, so everyone was sort of sick of hearing about it. That was one of those issues that just kept getting coverage, and you could almost see or hear the audience getting fatigued when you started talking about Adam Goodes – they were like, ‘We’ve heard about this every day for a month, stop.’
So yeah, not only do you get the turnover because things get old, but you also get that. And in a sense – it’s great, because for someone who’s reading the news anyway, the fear of your material getting old is a great motivator.
Do you read the news in a different way, then?
PM: Partly. I mean, when you met me just then, reading the news, I was looking for ideas. I was conscious of the fact that I haven’t written something I’ve really liked for the last month. But sometimes I’m just reading the news and I’m actually just interested, because there are some news stories, like – I’m never going to write a bit about the replacement of US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, right, but I’ve read a lot about his legal ideas and theories, and that’s just me being interested in the world.
We’ll talk about that after the interview.
PM: [laughs] So, sometimes I’m reading the news just because I’m interested, and other times I’m reading the news for comedy. But in a sense, because I was reading the news before I was doing comedy, a lot of the same filters apply, so I’m still analysing it the same way – now I’m just finishing with ‘is there a joke at the end of that?’
So that kind of ties into how you choose your topics – you go for things that people kinda know a little bit about already, but not that are over-saturated, like the Adam Goodes story?
PM: Well to be fair, the Adam Goodes bit is in my show, partly because I felt there was enough distance now that you can look back on it. And I think the other thing is, this year I knew I was doing a fifty-minute show – last year I was doing a split bill, twenty-five minutes each –
– with Nick O’Connell?
PM: – Nick O’Connell, yeah. And this year I was conscious that what I needed to pick were issues, rather than individual news stories, if that makes sense. Like, last year I was able to do a bit about those university reforms that are now old news. But this year I was quite conscious of picking big things that I could spend five or ten minutes on and I knew would be relevant – so for example, genuinely, ISIS is one of them, gay marriage is one of them, Adam Goodes and Reclaim Australia is another – so I was conscious of trying to write about things that I could spend a bit longer on, rather than short, sharp news stories.
How do you do comedy about negative gearing?
PM: I don’t think I’m going to, it’s too dry. I was talking to some other comedians about this the other day – negative gearing and capital gains tax are two examples where, if politicians do their jobs properly, it’s a lot harder to make fun of them. They’re having the right discussion about the right issues – the pros and cons of getting rid of them are just dry economic policy. Great politics, terrible for me! You know, if someone wants to get in a sex scandal again, like Jamie Briggs, that’d be great. But yeah, there’s just doing their job properly.
Do you think you’d take certain comments that have been made that are particularly ridiculous? Would that be your ‘in’?
PM: Yeah, maybe – I mean, the somewhat more interesting one is the GST. I toyed with writing something about that, and ultimately didn’t, but at least with the GST – we were having that discussion before about educating people, and the GST is much more in the public consciousness, and so talking about raising it is a very simple concept to get across. I mean, I doubt most people have heard of negative gearing or capital gains tax, and to the extent that they have, it’s not something that a lot of people understand – I don’t really understand either of those things!
I’ll have to write an article on them.
PM: Send it to me.
Yeah, I’ll send it to you, and we can both distribute it so you can do comedy on it.
PM: I’ll just print it out, and put one on every seat for my show.
A short, seven-page pamphlet.
PM: It’s less a comedy show, more like a university lecture, with pre-readings.
“This joke is left as an exercise for the reader.”
PM: “You’ll need to complete this joke at home.”
That’ll be good, I think people will be interested.
PM: “Oh, that’s what he was talking about.”
“This will be a slow-burner, but read three or four articles on negative gearing, and this a really solid bit.”
PM: It’s actually such a slow-burner that they’ll get it by about July.
Well that’s the thing, you’re right on the cutting edge of comedy.
PM: Totally. I’m writing jokes about things that haven’t even happened yet.
Genuinely – what do you predict is the next joke that you’ll be making?
PM: [laughs] I don’t know. Prediction is not something I specialise in. But I suspect, actually, this Newspoll saying the two parties are 50/50 will make the next fortnight very interesting. There’ll be a lot of internal stuff going on in the Liberal Party – if I were Cory Bernardi, Kevin Andrews or Eric Abetz, I’d be saying, “What’s going on, you replaced my man Tony Abbott with Malcolm Turnbull, nothing’s changed?” So who knows, maybe the next fortnight might give me some fodder for material?
Originally I read that you were running to the 26th, and then all those shows sold out – and now I see you’ve got a show on the 27th – is that correct?
PM: Yeah, on the 27th I’m doing an afternoon show, so it’s at a quarter past four in the Beer Garden at the Producers, which can hold a hundred people – so I’m hoping to get a few people in. I’m certainly not expecting to sell a hundred tickets. But it’ll be fun, I really like that space. Nick and I did an extra show there last year, it’s a really nice space.
I watched some YouTube footage of you performing last year, was that in that main garden area at the Producers?
PM: Yeah, that would have been there. That’s from last year’s show?
Yeah, I think so! Does the Ukrainian dolphin material still hold up this year?
PM: Well funnily enough – there’s another dolphin story in my show this year! It’s absolutely true – they do get used by the military! And there’s this great story where Hamas captured a dolphin that they thought had been spying for Israel. Dolphins get used all the time, apparently. They’re quite intelligent.
I mean, dogs get used for all sorts of reasons, we don’t find that so funny. I guess it’s because you don’t expect people to be weaponising the sea.
Well people are generally conscious of dogs being used for all sorts of purposes, and I think dolphins are inherently funny creatures as well.
PM: They are. It’s just, I suppose people are used to seeing dogs because we use them to help the blind, we use them to detect drugs, so the idea that they’re detecting IEDs in Iraq makes a lot of sense, but the idea of a dolphin doing anything like that seems bizarre.
So yeah, funnily enough, they are. And so when you ask, “Do you read the news slightly differently?” – that’s an example of going to a website like the BBC and looking at their ‘Most Read’ articles, because the ‘Most Read’ is always a completely different top ten to the ‘Most Important’. So that dolphin story was number one or two on the BBC’s ‘Most Read’.
I guess what I was conscious of was that I had this whole eight to ten minutes on ISIS, and the dolphin story was a nice way to break the audience into that – you can talk about a stupid story about a dolphin, and then segue into the Middle East because the dolphin was captured by Hamas. So I was looking for something light anyway, and that sort of helped in that sense.
Well there’s a lot of light stuff about ISIS.
PM: They’re funny guys. I haven’t… had any of them come to my show yet, that I know of. I’m hoping someone from ISIS comes along and reviews it, because they’ve got a great social media strategy. So I feel like I’d get a lot of traction.
“No publicity is bad publicity?”
PM: If I end up doing gigs to ISIS, I do gigs to ISIS. I’m trying to get into the corporate circuit, that’s a way in.
I’m making that the headline of the whole thing. “If I have to do gigs to ISIS, I’m doing gigs to ISIS”.
PM: “The things you have to do as a comedian.”
“In this economy.”
PM: Hey man, gig’s a gig.
“The Liberal government, pushing comedians to do gigs for ISIS.”
PM: Man, I’m making some powerful enemies in this interview.
ISIS, the government. I suppose the government’s quite powerful, too.
PM: Particularly if the headline is “Pat McCaffrie wants to do a show for ISIS”. I’ll definitely be on an ASIO list then.
“Pat McCaffrie Made Illegal”.
PM: That might be the name of my next Fringe show. I’ll do it from some underground ASIO cell. You’ve got to have an angle.
Pat McCaffrie’s Don’t Watch the News, Watch Pat McCaffrie will run til Saturday 27th at the Producers.