Sketch comedy is notoriously difficult. Even for the best sketch troops not every skit hits gold, but brilliant sketches can live forever, shared around, re-discovered by new generations and quoted by nerds at parties. It can be an intimidating art form to go into and requires hard work and a certain amount of discipline to create so much silliness.
Between 2008 and 2010 Melbourne was blessed with a group of experienced local comedians who regularly pumped out over an hour of new, entertaining live and recorded sketches with an infectious sense of fun and camaraderie. For comedy fans The Anarchist Guild Social Committee became “must see” comedy in Melbourne. Audiences gathering at the Bella Union Bar of Trades Hall on a Sunday afternoon got to feel they were part of a group of friends who mucked about together, enjoying making each other laugh. So it was pretty exciting to learn that the Guild are re-uniting for a special performance at the Bella Union this coming weekend.
The core of the old crew are back including Andrew Mcclelland, Celia Pacquola, Richard Mckenzie, Tegan Higginbotham, and Nick Caddaye along with a long list of guest appearances. The Committee’s acerbic host Nick found time to answer some questions about working with the group and it’s upcoming reunion.
Lisa: How long did the original run of the Anarchist Guild Social Committee actually go for?
Nick: The AGSC (which is what I’m abbreviating it to from now on because long titles are exhausting) ran one year full-time and one year part-time. In the first twelve months we put on a totally new 75-odd minutes of sketch comedy every month alongside special guests and other malarkey. We travelled interstate, did charity gigs and best-of shows, and generally ran ourselves into the ground.
In the second year, we were more a special-event kind of thing. We’d only turn up to celebrate seasonal holidays and festivals. Our last show was our 2nd Anniversary show in June 2010.
Lisa: Why did you stop doing it?
Nick: Exhaustion. We genuinely lived in each other’s pockets for 18 months or so – we’d see each other every week if not two or three times. Even when a team is as awesome as ours is, that can be too much. Also, people started to get busy, and in the end Celia moved to England. So, there just wasn’t the time.
Lisa: Why have you got the Guild together again?
Nick: Everyone was (mostly) available. So, we thought we’d give it a crack just the once and see how it went.
Lisa: There is a much smaller core group for the reunion show [5 down from about 8]. Was it hard to produce the same amount of material?
Nick: It wasn’t. The thing is, if you all write two good sketches, you’ve got 10 sketches and that’s the backbone of a show. Then I go away and write piles of extra stuff to tie it all together.
Lisa: Was it terrifying/thrilling to put on a live monthly sketch show of new material in front of an audience?
Nick: Everyone in the team is pretty experienced and frequently play to big houses here and abroad, so there’s no particular fear of the audience. The scary part is doing otherwise untested material for the first (and often last time) on stage. But that’s also part of the pleasure – the opportunity to try things that you might not otherwise be able to and work with people you might not otherwise get to work with.
Lisa: There was a great sense of camaraderie on stage, yet I often wondered about the tensions behind the scene and of herding a bunch comedians into getting material together & putting on a monthly show. I’m guessing it’s about everyone having certain strengths to add and knowing each other well. Are you the main wrangler?
Nick: I’m the main creative driver but our Producer, Leah Collins, is the one who worries about logistics. And yes, the hardest thing about this project was never the ‘funny’ parts – it was the logistics. Thankfully everyone not only gets along famously but they also understand each other’s strengths and can write to them. Chemistry cannot be over-rated in this context. And that means we can get a lot done in a short amount of time because so much of the work is already done.
Lisa: Was it hard when everyone had festival shows to put on etc. Or did it help in creating ideas & material for the performer’s festival shows?
Nick: Festival time is bloody hard because everyone is being pulled in a million directions. One of the reasons that we’ve been able to do this show is because Andy isn’t doing a MICF show for the first time in 12 years or so. And then Richard and I have gigs and stuff like Late Night Letters and Numbers lined-up, but not full shows. It’s only Celia and Tegan that have to maintain the balance.
As far as influencing the individual work, I know Celia has adapted sketch ideas into stand-up bits. But generally I find creativity begets creativity, so if I’m working on one thing, the next thing is much easier to start. I’m not sure if it works like that for the others, but we always managed.
Lisa: I’ve always admired the strong female contingent of the Anarchist’s, it was especially noticeable back then, but even now it seems to be a rare thing in sketch comedy groups. (Any chance of Courteney Hocking popping in?)
Nick: Yeah… I’m not sure why it’s a rare thing. Impro groups are full of women tearing it up, but a lot of sketch groups tend to be reasonably phallocentric. There are always exceptions of course, like Girls Uninterrupted who are a two-women sketch duo. But for every one of them, there are great lumps of men putting on silly voices and dropping their trousers.
It might have something to do with sketch comedy groups usually being groups of like-minded friends, and that the sort of person who says ‘yes, I will put on a sketch comedy show with my friends’ being the sort of person who doesn’t have many female friends? But that’s a maddeningly sweeping statement that’s both insulting and reductive.
Or perhaps it’s a matter of influence? What comedy do young sketch comics watch? Do they see women in these shows and view them equally? Or do they only see men and, as such, only consider men in this context?
My plans for the AGSC were to have three men and three women. It turned out to be three men, three women and two extra men floating about (myself as host and Ben McKenzie, who was intended as a utility player but is such a fine performer and a whizz as learning lines that he ended up with more work than I had planned).
Whilst I was friends with Courteney Hocking, I’d only met Tegan and Celia once or twice each before I asked them to be in the show. All I knew was their work – that they were bloody good. So, it was and wasn’t about gender – I was looking for women for the show, but in the end I just chose the funniest people. It was a bonus that they were women.
As far as Courteney is concerned… I asked her to be involved in the show, but she replied that she’s been Comedy clean for eleven months and wanted to keep it that way. I can understand that.
Lisa: How else have things changed?
It’s funny how little it’s changed. Despite it being three-and-a-half years since we last did it, we’ve mostly fallen back into our old rhythms and the style and structure of the show will be classic AGSC.
Lisa: Will you be doing pre-recorded sections again?
Nick: We’ve done quite a bit of pre-recorded stuff. Our promos can all be found on Youtube (just search for The Anarchist Guild Social Committee) and there is other stuff we’re keeping for the live show. Filming stuff is hard work, but very rewarding because at the end of the day you have *something*. Live comedy is more ephemeral.
Lisa: I got the impression that the Anarchists hoped get picked up for TV ala The D-gen?
Nick: Well, it’d be bloody lovely if it was. We’ve looked into it in the past, but it’s something of an impossible dream. I’ve always thought the show would suit the TV and I suppose you never know what the future holds of course…
Lisa: Do you think today’s TV might be more up for Melbourne based sketch comedy than it was say 5 years ago?
Nick: Well, there are more channels than there used to be, so there’s a need for more content. And slowly but surely things are improving – you’re seeing more Australian comedy voices on TV. But it’s always going to be cheaper to show repeats of ‘sitcom X’ than fully fund new comedy.
Lisa: Do you think there seems to be more interest in sketch generally than there was a few years ago?
Nick: There really wasn’t much around when we started, and in a live sense, there’s still nothing regular. This is because it’s hard – what the AGSC did in putting on a new show every month for a year was HARD. And that’s why no-one else is doing it.
That being said, I can think of half-a-dozen sketch groups that you’ll see listed come Festival time that are good (and more that aren’t besides…). And there’s slightly more sketch comedy on TV than there was then.
These things are often cyclical.
Lisa: Do you think with a new government it might be less acceptable now to do political stuff (If aiming at a show on TV)?
Nick: The AGSC was never especially political, because the endless churn of new material meant that jokes that worked on script submission day would be two weeks old by show day and lose their zing.
Lisa: As a regular audience member I always felt like I was part of a cool club, is that what you were going for?
Nick: Absolutely. It was always supposed to be ‘clubby’. Although I’d say it was more a big nerdy club for nerds than ‘cool’…
Lisa: Has anyone turned up to the Bella Union Bar at Trades Hall expecting a meeting of actual Anarchists?
Nick: Possibly at our first show, but not in a demonstrative sense. Around the time we started there was a controversy about ASIO infiltrating some groups at Trades Hall, and I always loved the idea that the mole came to see our show just to see if we were up to something subversive and then had to write a report on it.
“There was very little discussion about bringing down the government, but one of the cast seemed to eat a lot of chicken…”
The Anarchist Guild Social Committee (and guests) will re-unite this weekend – (and we’re quietly hoping it might lead to more shows.)
SUNDAY JANUARY 12th @ 5pm
Bella Union – Trades Hall (cnr. Victoria & Lygon St. Carlton)
The Von Muiznieks Family Singers