By Alanta Colley
Frank Woodley; the lovable man child has been part of our lives for as long as we can remember. Appearing at one of the first ever Melbourne Comedy Festivals in the late 80s as part of a trio, Frank went on to decades of success as part of the dynamic duo ‘Lano and Woodley’, has performed an array of on-stage physical theatre pieces, produced the ABC hit ‘Woodley’, as well as larking about on social media. He talks to Squirrel about the early days of the Melbourne Comedy festival, how his work has withstood the test of time, what being a Dad is like, what he finds funny off stage, and what advice he has for newer performers. He also gave us the scoop on what we can expect to see in his MICF show Fool’s Gold.
Alanta: A whole generation of us grew up watching you on Lano and Woodley, and seeing you on stage, both doing theatre as well as stand up. As a comedian who has kept their fame for so many years, how have you evolved your style of comedy to suit the ever changing needs of the audience?
Frank: I haven’t really evolved that much. There was a big change in going from the duo to going solo. Up until that point I could just be a child on stage. It was Col’s job to manage the practical realities of putting on the show. I’d sabotage whatever he was trying to do. If I went too far he would just berate me saying “the audience aren’t enjoying this you stupid little skinny man”. When I went solo for about six months I’d go off on tangents but I wouldn’t really know how to stop. It is a bit like seven year old kids going into their classroom, and the principal introduces them to their new teacher and he’s also a seven year old, and chaos just erupts. I’ve had to develop the bit of my brain that is also responsible for the direction of the show.
But really basically my whole career I’ve just been trying to create the kind of comedy that comes naturally to me. From an audience perspective I can enjoy all sorts of styles of comedy, it’s not like the thing I do is the only kind of comedy that I enjoy watching.
I’m sure things have evolved, but not in a way that’s been conscious to me, if that makes sense.
Alanta: That makes sense. I guess when you’re playing the funny man to the straight man, you are reacting to the situation they create, which changes when you’re doing solo work.
Frank: Exactly. I have to create the situation, and when I go off on flights of fancy there still has to be some ‘don’t worry, ladies and gentlemen, I’m in control’, and it took a little while for me to find that balance.
Also, it became easier when I developed the technology. I now have a large animatronic colon on stage.
Alanta: I see. That must be difficult to take touring.
Frank: Extremely difficult.
Alanta: You stand out in the Australian comedy scene as a comedian who uses a lot of physical theatre in your work. Australia seems to have a scarcity of comedians with a strong physical theatre bent. How did this become part of your world? Who were your inspirations?
Frank: It’s always perplexed me that not more people do it. I didn’t look for it as a niche market. I just did the thing that came most naturally to me.
The things that influenced me when I was a kid were things like Get Smart and the Goodies and movies like the Clouseau movies and Jerry Lewis, so I just naturally reflected that.
At school I was always mucking around being the clown. Showing off on the diving boards to impress the girls. I never did impress them very effectively. I thought I’d been this kind of Adonis on the diving board. I met a girl from school just the other day and she remembered me on the diving board and she described me as ‘a bag of bones’.
So it surprises me that there aren’t more people who do physical theatre. The vast majority of comedians do straight stand up, which is great as well, but I don’t understand why there isn’t more people running round like dickwits.
When I was 15 I dressed up as a hobo clown and went down to the local street festival and did roving, just for my own interest. And when I look back on it I think that’s a really peculiar thing for a teenage boy to do. It’s a mystery to me. There’s no performers in my family. It’s not as if old Uncle Larry has done some clowning.
Alanta: Well, I have a feeling you may have inspired a generation of people to start it, even if there wasn’t one when you started.
The process of sitting down and writing jokes for a stand-up comedy show sounds difficult. However, the idea of sitting down and writing a physical comedy show sounds impossible. What is your process for developing new pieces?
Frank: There’s really no secret. I just tinker around with ideas. For example I’m at a friend’s place at the moment. As I came up the road someone came around the corner driving on the wrong side of the road towards me. And it scared the absolute bejesus out of me. And I know there’s not a comedy routine in that. But if something like that happens to me, I just file it away in interesting experiences. And when I have to start writing a show, I’ll start drawing on a thousand little possible things like that. Maybe ten of them, I’ll find there’s actually something in this, and I’ll start teasing out the possibilities.
The secret is to not wait until you’ve got a brilliant idea. Start with anything that seems a little bit interesting and work with it. It’s like the art of conversation. You don’t wait until you’ve got something brilliant before you start talking to your friends, but through the process you’ll find hilarious things. It’s an intuitive instinctive skill we all have.
It’s almost like I have to pretend there’s a whole group of me standing around shooting the breeze with an idea. Like creating a brainstorming environment where I’m bouncing ideas off myself, you know ‘what if…maybe you could…wouldn’t it be funny if…’
Alanta: After years it must be good to have that sort of trust in knowing what you find funny others will find funny as well.
Frank: The great thing with comedy is that you can do trial performances, so with new material I’ll do about five trial shows before I start expecting people to pay to watch it. So when I use a piece of material I’ve usually got about an 80% strike rate of things that generate some kind of laughter and half of that will have legs. So only about 40% of it is strong material. And luckily, that other 60%, no one ever needs to hear about again. When it comes to the point of doing a show you can give the actual illusion of being more talented than you are. It’s great! By the final product it all seems spontaneous, but in reality I’m pulling the wool over people’s eyes. I’m nowhere near that funny.
Alanta: You and Colin Lane first appeared at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 1993 with ‘Fence’. How has the festival changed much since those days?
Frank: Well, ‘Fence’ was when we performed with Lano and Woodley but we performed as a trio for 4 or five years before that. So I think I did my first comedy festival in 1989. It’s weird to think that there are people with grey hair in comedy now who weren’t even born when we started doing comedy. I mean, it would be premature greying, but still, it’s weird.
But the festival has just grown and grown and grown. ’89 was either the first or second year of the festival. At that stage it was about twenty acts. Very much a Fringe kind of event. Nobody really knew much about it. There was about five venues. And its just gone from strength to strength. I think that a lot of people in Melbourne take it for granted. I think they imagine every city has an incredible comedy festival once a year like this. But it’s a very special thing.
The Edinburgh Fringe festival is huge but it’s different in terms of it being a Fringe festival, not just a comedy festival. And the Montreal comedy festival is different because its curated, which means you don’t have that same crazy sort of experimental ‘anything goes’ quality to the shows.
Melbourne is absolutely amazing . It’s fantastic to see it grow and grow. I saw a bunch of shows last year and couldn’t help thinking that it was incredible art that goes straight from the artist to the audience. Most of the art we receive is through television and movies and because it’s expensive to make there’s many producers and all sorts of people who have an opinion about the content before it gets to the audience, which makes some of it homogenised. Whereas live comedy is just some lunatic with an idea going straight to the audience which means that the material is unique and personal. The shows I saw I felt that they couldn’t have been made by anybody but that person. It was great. You know, someone like Paul Foot. You just know no one else in the world could or will do anything like that. It’s brilliant and wonderful. I love that aspect of the comedy festival.
Alanta: The physical theatre that you undertook in ‘Possessed’ and ‘Inside’ among others must be intensely physically demanding and to a degree dangerous. How do you develop the skills to not kill yourself? Training must be a big part of your regime?
Frank: I have simple straight forward exercise regime that’s nothing special. I try to keep myself healthy and strong. But most of the physical stuff I do probably anyone could do if they applied themselves to it and did a bit of practice. It’s not high-level skill for most part, much more about choosing where to place things in terms of creating the meaning. For example in Possessed there was an opening sequence of me falling down the stairs. When I was making that I actually went to the christening of a friend there was a little set of stairs going up to the altar of the church and all these kids who were about 4 or 5 just started tumbling down stairs, and I was agog. I thought I could not do what these kids were doing. It humbled me. What I do in my shows is very controlled. I’m being careful I don’t actually hurt myself. You know, if the audience believes you to be a world class acrobat and you do a double somersault, they’ll think ‘we’ll that’s good, but there’s someone out there who can do a triple somersault.’ But if you get your sleeve caught on a doorhandle as you enter the room and then fall on your bum, then the audience relates to you as a normal person, and any stunts after that have high impact.
I’ve still tried to push myself to the limit of what things I’ve tried. But even the major stung in Possessed, just about anyone could do the technical trick if you talk them through it and they’re prepared to try it.
Alanta: Well, you had us all convinced that it was a death defying stunt, falling down the stairs.
Frank: Oh, I shouldn’t have told you all that then. To do the physical comedy I do, you just need to have no self-respect, really.
And with Inside the thing is Simon Yates – my co-performer and long term friend, is actually a world class acrobat and he is actually elite. I kind of got a bit of reflective glory working with him. And because we look quite similar, some people thought that I’d done some of the stunts he did!
Alanta: Inside depicted a dystopian tale of two prisoners in a sort of 1984 style prison camp, which flew in the face of the more whimsical and light-hearted comedy that you’re known for. What lead to you exploring such a bleak theme? And how did people react?
Frank: I was really proud of that show. It was a combination of Simon and mine imaginations and areas of work. When put heads together and followed our noses. There was a lot of love in the relationship between two brothers. The show definitely explored the much darker themes of suffering. Only about a third of my regular audience came and only about 60% of them enjoyed it. And maybe the remaining 40% found it a little bit too difficult or were disappointed that it wasn’t as light-hearted as other stuff. But I feel that in order to keep my comedy alive, and not getting too stuck in formulas or repeating myself…there’s a fine line between repeating and refining a skill, and becoming jaded and playing it safe. If that happens all of the playfulness will just leach away from the performance. So it was an important thing for me to do, to throw myself into the unknown. It was like going back to my first days of comedy; feeling ‘I don’t know how this works; I’m excited and unsure about this’ which is a good thing ultimately.
And ultimately while the character was a simple Russian brother, the differences with my normal character were superficial, it was still the core of the character I’ve played my whole career of the innocent child-man, with the same guileless quality.
Alanta: Woodley the television series was just beautiful and moving. You managed to explore some of the sadder realities of family life and death of loved ones, while still maintaining a whimsical and humorous air to the whole thing. How much of yourself did you put into the show? Where does Frank Woodley the character end and the man start?
Frank: My wife thinks it’s a documentary! There are parts of me in there; I am a romantic. I do believe that the love between people is really all that matters. I do have that sentimental perspective in my real life.
I’ve seen in the silent movies this blend of broad clowning and sentimentalism and pathos. You don’t see it very much anymore. Most modern broad physical comedy doesn’t allow for that sentimental poignancy. And because I love that genre I wondered if you could do a show that sort of references them but is not a parody or replication of the silent films; is still a modern show that is somehow integrating that pathos and broad comedy in a way that feels cohesive. That was the challenge I set myself. It was an absolute labour of love. I’m really grateful to the crew. They really elevated it to something beyond what imagined. I was very rapped with that.
Alanta: Well, it really came together, the music, the visual style and the characters. It also had an Australianness combined with physical comedy I hadn’t seen elsewhere.
Frank: More gushing. I love it.
Alanta: Hah, yes. Sorry. You described yourself once in an interview as: the child-man who hasn’t grown up. Have you felt that character need to evolve as you’ve grown older? As a Dad?
Frank: Yes. I don’t tend to talk about my private life, but I am a father. That is a genuine tension as a father and a clown. It’s like I was talking about stepping away from the duo and I had to integrate the adult responsible character into my own; parenthood is a bit like that I’m sure for all people becoming parents; we’re all just little kids going ‘Ooooh, I don’t know what to dooo!” It is kind of terrifying for sure.
I think as I grow older I can still maintain that fundamentally innocent perspective. Even when you’re 85 you can still have that befuddled and bemused reality just below the surface. So it’s not as if I suddenly need to become mature and knowing. Though ageing does subtly change what the audience expects of you I think.
Alanta: We’ve sort of touched on this already; you’ve done trios, duos, television, stand up, and intensive physical theatre. With such a long and successful career to date, how do you keep challenging yourself as a performer?
Frank: I don’t have conscious strategy; I just try to keep it interesting I guess. I try to avoid being fearful. If you are feeling fearful you start playing it safe and losing that sense of adventure.
Alanta: I put the question out to a few friends what they would like to ask you and there were a few marriage proposals; but I said I wouldn’t pass them on –
Frank: Well I mean, send me some photos. I mean I have been married for over 25 years but if somebody better comes along –
Alanta: I’m assuming your wife isn’t in the room.
Frank: I’m sure if she was she’d appreciate that was a JOKE.
Alanta: It would seem you’re a keen observer of the inherent humour of day to day life. What’s the funniest thing you’ve seen off stage?
Frank: Well, it might have just been the mood I was in, but I saw a guy in Ackland street in St Kilda wearing his pants low slung, being cool, you know how you usually see jocks above the pants? He had no shirt on, which added to the laissez faire effect. He had no undies on, and you could see his entire buttocks, then at the front you could see all of his pubes and just the suggestion of penis. And he was swaggering down the street so confident that he was on the cusp of a fashion revolution. I must admit I followed him for a while.
I actually tried to recreate that moment on stage one time and the audience just said: ‘No. We don’t want to see your pubes.” That was one of those examples of the 60% of material that no one ever needs to see again.
Alanta: Thousands of people now follow your YouTube and Facebook pages. How do you use those media to in relation to developing your work?
Frank: I had a crack at that for about three months- I tried to be prolific but don’t know if can actually keep doing that. Almost taking up too much of mental space just thinking about it. I don’t like just posting things that haven’t been considered. There’s no doubt though that the internet is an amazing in way artists can go straight to audience.
Alanta: You’re an inspiration and a mentor to many young physical theatre performers and comedians. What advice would you offer those early in their career?
Frank: The main thing I would say is: find opportunities to perform in front of audiences. However you can. Whether its busking, or open mic nights, anything you can find to get out in front of audiences and perform.
Alanta: What style of comedy can we expect to see in ‘Fool’s Gold?’
Frank: It’s a classic stand up show with a mix of performance types a bit like Bemusement Park and it’s got everything from exploring how the Nazis came up with their salute, to a crocodile tour, to a couple of songs and physical theatre. Basically anything I can think of to stop the audience thinking that they wish they were somewhere else. A whole bunch of disparate ideas but hopefully a good night out.
Frank Woodley performs Fool’s Gold at The Melbourne Town Hall