By James Shackell
Since emerging from Perth in 2009 to win RAW Comedy, Michael Workman has taken out nearly every award for being funny the country has to offer, along the way gaining a reputation for whimsical narratives, haunting poetry, and eyebrows that move as if independent from his body (although that may be just this critic’s opinion). This year he returns to the festival with Ave Loretta, a dark comedy about depression, loss and expectation. I met up with Michael at a cafe on Swanston Street to discuss the new show.
So tell me about Ave Loretta. What’s the story?
It’s hard to talk about it without making it sound like something it’s not. It’s about a successful musician who travels back to his shitty home town to visit the grave of his muse who committed suicide. When people ask me what it’s about, that’s kind of what I’m obligated to say because technically that is what it is about, but it’s hard to picture that being funny.
Well you are known for going into dark and different places with your comedy. Is that your intention?
Well I bring it on myself. I did a show about political unrest in Cuba and freedom of speech, which again is not typical subject matter for comedy, and really to expect people to go, ‘Hey! Go see this hilarious thing!’ is possibly a bit much. But that being said, it is funny, and it is a comedy show. But that’s probably not the focus. I like to use comedy as a vehicle to convey loftier concepts.
And what are the concepts this year?
Well this year the show is kind of a departure from my other stuff because it’s quite morally ambiguous. There’s no distinct moral conclusion to this show, it’s pretty open ended. So I’m really just trying to get people thinking about depression and suicide and banality and how that affects the human experience. This was something that was important in my life, certainly before I started comedy. Those were the sort of battles I was going through. But I wanted to fictionalise that story a little bit and give an impression of it, rather than an autobiography.
What were you doing before comedy?
I was making music. I was writing scores for theatre, and drinking heavily. Those were my two main interests at the time. Comedy seemed to be the panacea for that. I pretty much stopped immediately after I started stand-up.
Do you feel pressure to back up with this third show?
Yeah definitely. This was certainly the most difficult show to write. Because I felt like I was maybe falling into a formula with doing these fables, these very symbolic shows, and then I decided to get out of that by doing a really gritty, down-to-earth story with very little whimsy. This is dark as hell. People should be expected to be very surprised that they are laughing at some of the things they’re laughing at. And they should expect that I won’t pull any punches. This is an intense subject and I’m not going to make light of an intense subject, but I am going to find the humour in it. This is definitely got the biggest chunks of real me in it.
Did it feel like therapy writing it?
Yeah to an extent, it did. Having to come up with ways to express what I meant in ways that maybe people who hadn’t experienced it could understand; I think that’s actually been really helpful to unravel some of the problems. But I should say that this is not about my therapy, which had a positive outcome. This is about other people.
Your shows always have a narrative. What do you think story can bring to comedy?
I feel this compulsion to get maybe a single idea across in each hour. So I think of a show as a potato – coz like a potato is like a big sack of starch, and that’s the part that we eat, and that’s the part that we like, but the whole point of that big sack of starch is so that a tiny sapling at the top can poke through and survive. So the audience prefers the starch – you can fry it, mash it, have it with some duck, but the sprout is the point I’m getting across. The sack of starch is just what makes it edible.
So what do you find funny?
Honesty and self awareness. People who can stand back and see exactly who they are objectively are very amusing to me. People who deconstruct what’s going on in their social interactions and that kind of thing without being awkward.
And who are you objectively?
Oh God. Look I think it changes from situation to situation. I think there’s a whole bunch of inaccurate views of me, that I’m aware of. People often say that I’m a mysterious person, but I don’t think that’s true at all, I think I’m just really very awkward, socially, but also very comfortable with the fact that I’m awkward socially, which culminates in this air of mystique which is possibly misguided.
Is the life of a full-time comedian at all like a rock star?
While I don’t have a lot of experience with what a rock star might do, I’ve heard the stories. There’s probably some of that, a little bit of that. You’ll find that comedians are generally pretty obsessive about their work, especially while a show’s on, they’re extremely committed, and they have to be, because if you’re not you’re just going to bomb. So there’s not a lot of wild parties and lines of coke and prostitutes and yachts. Not a lot of yachts.
Do you think that could be what’s missing from comedy? Yachts?
Yeah, I think so. Yachts, mizzen masts, jibs, spinnakers. The whole thing.
Now your accent, what’s going on there? (Workman has a kind of minestrone accent: there’s a bit of Australian, a bit of British, a bit of American, and a bit of something else).
No one quite knows. I was born in Perth, and my parents are Australian. The prevailing theory at the moment is that I was possibly too influenced by television as a small child. But as long as I can remember I’ve spoken like this.
And your look keeps changing year by year.
I keep changing my look to suit the show. So this show is more of a dark, but also casual, show so I’ve gone unshaven and back to the natural black hair. Because I think that represents this person I’m playing.
And what’s the next step after Ave Loretta?
Well I start writing the next show pretty much now. But I’m going to do more music and painting, but in terms of comedy I’ll start writing now. I have a few ideas in the works that I’m not at liberty to talk too much about, but there’s movement there.
Michael Workman is performing Ave Loretta at Melb Town Hall – Regent Room