When we think about Australian humour, Lano & Woodley are at the forefront of the conversation. 30 years on from their beginning, Colin Lane & Frank Woodley are still making whole theatres erupt into laughter. Colin, who is an established comedian in his own right, spoke with Collarts' Head of Comedy Andrea Powell and students in an intimate Zoom chat about playing and writing a comedic character on-stage and on-screen.
What's your process for devising a new idea for a show?
It's not such a bad thing at the end of the day if you haven't had any ideas. John Clarke (comedian) said that he and Andrew Knight (screenwriter) would get together at 10 and "crap on" for hours and hours. They have lunch. They go for a walk, go and get a cup of tea. A muffin at about 3:30. Andrew is wondering what John's doing, John's talking to the lollipop man for about 15 minutes. And then they would come back to the office, and for the last half an hour, they might write something or they might not. It's hard to describe to people that aren't in the biz, but there's a lot of wasting of time, but you need that time to create rapport and sit with ideas because you're in this glorious position that you're self producing.
You're the constant critic or benchmark of what you do and what you write, so you're constantly questioning and second guessing. Sometimes it takes a long while to get something down of quality, so there's a lot of time just telling stories. Frank knows everything that's happened in my life and I know every single thing that Frank has done in his life. These days, a lot of writers say you have to "crap on" and you have to think laterally, but at the same time, if after two or three days you haven't written anything, write something. Write a hundred words. You might screw it up the next day, but write something.
I also think that spending that time faffing about builds rapport, especially when you're first working with someone. It also lets you relax your mind and open it to other ideas.
Yes! The thing that comes out of your mouth has to be funny, but that's exactly right. You want to be in a relationship that takes time but pays off in the end, and you want to be in an enormously safe space where you can say anything and fail a lot, because for one idea, you've got to have 10 sh*t ideas.
And then, sometimes you just come up with little kind of jokes within the writing process where you hope for no bad ideas. But if we were making a list of bad ideas, that would be in that list. Then sometimes you have good days and bad days, and sometimes you just get extremely petty. And if Frank hasn't laughed at one of my ideas for half an hour, then it doesn't matter how funny his next idea is, I refuse to laugh. Because he just hasn't given me any satisfaction; I'm not going to laugh at your stuff!
I know sometimes I've said things in character to people that are probably a little bit out of character, but it was for my own satisfaction in the moment at the time.
Yes, and you can get away with it because you are in character. It's amazing the power that you have on that stage. It's amazing the things that you can say, because you're on that stage and we endow you with this weird kind of performing intelligence, where we think that whatever you say most of the time is really intelligent, witty, and authoritative. You have that respect from the audience, so you can say stuff that you wouldn't normally say.
Well, you were just so loved. You and Frank can make comedy out of nothing. You're both so likeable on stage, that likability is huge.
Many on-stage comedians like Glenn Robbins, Kath and Kim, Richard Stubbs, Judith Lucy and others, they have this innate stage persona where, as soon as they walk on stage, the audience gets this sense that they are in good hands.
Photo: Greg Briggs
"you want to be in an enormously safe space where you can say anything and fail a lot, because for one idea, you've got to have 10 sh*t ideas."
And I think that's how Class Clowns and rural comedy has been so good in making it not just about the jokes, but also about how you stand, how you hold the microphone, how you look at the audience, how you engage, how you take a breath before you start. Steve Martin says that, "The first 20 seconds on stage is vitally important for the audience to just get a sense of who you are and whether you are going to cut it." They want your assurance but at the same time, the audience wants to like you.
What's next for you once we come out of lockdown?
When is that going to be for the performing arts industry? As we all know that's just what's so disconcerting about it, because we don't know. I really enjoyed the online shows last weekend. They were great to do and good for the soul and brain.
What was it like doing an online show?
It was actually a lot more satisfying than I thought, because for the first half an hour you could see the people on there. You could see probably 50 people on the screen who were getting ready in their lounge room, so that gave you a sense of it being real, like "this is happening".
And because we live streamed it, that's the only time we're going to do the show. It wasn't for eternity. In some ways, it was weirdly like a theatrical performance in that that's the performance; that's it. There was a slight feeling of gay abandon, because you knew that there wasn't going to be anything left for posterity. Lano and Woodley's motto is: lower people's expectations. And in these weird times, nobody's got any expectations about what a Zoom show is, so you can't really fail. So if you go in with that sense of levity, people were really appreciative of the fact that we actually did it. That was very comforting.
What's the difference between writing for a live show and television?
What we try and do now is write a story and then write jokes based on the story. So instead of just coming up with jokes, we write a story that isn't funny and then we write jokes based on what has to be achieved to tell the story. There's always room for jokes. For example, if the story is about Andrea and Colin having a beer on a Friday night after a week of iso, then the jokes are based on beer, iso, two old friends, a bar and sitting down. We did do a lot of story loops too: putting in a joke at the start of the show that pays off 20 minutes in. People just think that's so clever, but it's not; it's not that clever. It just makes sense to the story. It's reasonable storytelling. But if you just try to think about what's funny for hours, it's really hard.
This interview was transcribed from a student lecture for the Comedy course.