Q&A with Aunty Donna
Words by Huyen Hac Helen Tran
Comedic beasts Aunty Donna are back again with a new slew of live shows. Hailing from Melbourne, Australia – this team of 6 have travelled around the world with their absurdist comedy style, yet have kept their material home-grown. Their new show ‘Glennridge Secondary College’ takes place at a co-educational high school located in Grundy Shire, just 20 kilometres south of Melbourne. Vertigo chatted with one Aunty Donna’s front men Zach about the show.
So, you’re heading off to the United States, soon aren’t you?
Yes, I am heading off to the United States tomorrow morning.
Are you nervous? Excited for a new slew of shows about to happen?
I don’t so much get nervous all the time anymore, but if it’s a new city I’ll get a bit nervous. If my parents are in the crowd I’ll get nervous… I mean they’re very supportive and well on board with my career, but if they’re in the audience I don’t want them thinking: “Oh man, we let him go and study drama and look at him, he’s making a fool of himself.”
Do you notice when you go to different cities that there’s a difference in crowds? For example, between Australia and the United States?
Yes, between Australia and the US there is a huge difference. In Australia, we like to shove things deep into ourselves and any problems, any positives, any expression of love we wait until we’re pissed out of our minds until we express any of that. In the US they’ll just do it. Bump into them and they’ll tell you they’ve got a problem with you. If they like you they’ll tell you. It translates on stage. They love standing ovations over there. You could walk on stage and do nothing for an hour and you would get a standing ovation in about 60% of US shows. Every single American audience is like Australia’s Got Talent.
You should go on America’s Got Talent, see what happens.
We were asked to do one of those shows once… and we politely declined.
One of the things I find so funny about your videos is the really over the top affection on top of each other. When you go to America, do they ever not understand why that’s as funny to an Australian? Do they ever not understand any of the jokes and terminology when you go over there?
We’ve got a tour manager over there and he’s been touring foreigners through the US since the late 90’s. When we first started, he was like “Oh you’ve got to change your references and any words that they don’t understand in the US.” It’s really funny because we kind of forgot and didn’t change a lot of it. [Aunty Donna] has always been used to Americans not picking up on the references but they’re a lot more used to it now because of YouTube. I think they appreciate it on a slightly different level… but also, we’ve got funny accents so they really like that. So that’s a level that people don’t appreciate in Australia that they do in the US. We’re speaking funny the whole time.
What’s the difference between performing your sketches live or filming? Is there one you or the group prefer doing?
It depends. Filming is great because you can go really silly and if you go too silly you can just edit it out. Whereas live, the great advantage of that is getting a response all the time. If something isn’t working, you know it’s not working. So that’s really cool. It’s so hard to know. I love them all in different ways.
Do you think it’s not so much homing in one specific style, but rather trying anything and everything under the moon?
I think yes, especially initially. We were just going for it. Our motto at the start was “whatever’s funniest.” We’re all drama kids, so we all started out doing Shakespeare and wearing black pants and taking ourselves really seriously. So, when we started doing comedy we had no pretence that it should be about anything else – we just went for it and were like “let’s just make people happy.” I think that’s where we come from. At any moment, at any particular instant, we’ll just go for the funniest thing we can go for. That’s where it comes from, and that’s why we’re so crazy and all over the place.
So since the conception of Aunty Donna, how has it evolved from that kind of motto of “whatever’s funniest”? Do you think that’s still a core of how Aunty Donna attacks comedy?
I think as you get older, you kind of realise it’s a bit more nuanced than that. Maybe whatever’s funniest is a bit too full on or offensive to some people, and we just err away from that because that’s not funniest to them. Maybe the funniest thing you can do for the punchline is pull it back a little bit. We’ve gotten a bit more nuanced with it. More or less we try to stick to that. There’s smarter people than us, there’s better actors and there’s better writers. What we can do is just like, be stupid.
You’re a little self-deprecating Zach! Listen, this is an age-old question, how did the group form? Did you all meet in university?
We all went to acting school together. There’s actually 6 members of Aunty Donna, there’s the 3 stage [actors], there’s another writer named Sam, there’s a musician named Tom and our videographer and editor named Max. Four of us went to acting school together and Max the filmmaker went to high school with Broden and Tom. Broden and I, we were in a production of An Actor Prepares, and Sam was playing the part of Stanislavski’s ghost, and I remember he was just so good, so powerful in this performance and we really hit it off from there. We really had a creative spark. We all just sort of got together and really liked each other’s stuff. We decided to do comedy for some reason. So, then we did some comedy. And we kept doing some comedy. And here we are!
Your new show Glenridge Secondary College, making the rounds soon. Coming to Sydney in May! But we haven’t really heard much about the show, besides the fact that it’s set at a high school. Will you be tackling hard-hitting teen issues such as bullying, social peer pressure and puberty?
The bulk of the show is about cyber-bullying. Everything I said to you previously, was actually a lie. This entire show is about cyber-bullying and there is not a single joke in the entire show. It’s a very serious drama about cyber-bullying.
So parents should definitely bring their young teenagers to the show?
Yeah absolutely. I think it’s more aimed at the cyber bullies. So if your kid is a nerd, they’re probably not going to get a lot out of this show. If your kid is a bully, and a cyber bully at that – than parents should definitely take their cyber bully kid to the show and maybe they’ll learn to not cyber-bully kids. And just bully them the old fashion way.
I’m glad to hear Aunty Donna is taking a bit more of a social stand on issues.
Absolutely! And specifically, cyber-bullying. But just the cyber part you know? We just really wanted to get into that. When I was a kid, we used to get out in the mud and just be silly and goofy, rough and tumble. Now kids are just cyber-bullying all the time. They’re getting on their Myspaces and their Instagrams, and they’re just cyber bullying each other. And we just thought, now we’ve got to talk about this. We sat down, we wrote the whole show in 45 minutes and it just came out of our souls. This is what we think of cyber-bullying. I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised.
So at the same time, you’re also releasing “The Album” which is a very creative name. You’ve released a few videos before with some musical elements in it, but this time it’s a full-fledged 16 songs and videos, and the songs are very well produced. What’s the creative process like in comparison to the usual improve styled videos? Was it a challenge?
I definitely struggled with it because anyone who has seen us perform live knows that I personally have very little sense of rhythm. I’m a terrible dancer and rapper because I have no sense of rhythm at all. But it was fun, and a good challenge.
There’s a bit of a theme with the two songs that have come out so far. Did Mark, Broden and yourself just divide the number of videos evenly and then give that person their own creative space to decide what they wanted to do with that? Or was it very much a group effort and ensemble deciding?
There are certainly songs that are more led by individuals. Part of what makes us different or very distinct about what we do is we tend to work together on virtually every idea. Someone will bring in an idea, we’ll workshop an idea and we’ll roundtable it. We’ll all talk, throw ideas around it. If it’s a live show thing we might improvise around it and one person will take it and write it, and usually someone else or another couple of people will take it and do rewrites on it. For the most part, even if it’s a song that has one person in it, we’ve all helped a little bit on that song. We’ve all contributed. That’s I think how our voice and style comes out. Everyone puts their fingers in the pie and gives it that vibe… the more fucked stuff in Professor Whiskers was definitely Mark. He’s a sick man and we’re worried for him. We all jumped in and tried to make it a little less fucked.
Right, my last question for you Zach. University is just starting out, a lot of kid’s fresh out of high school are coming in, probably a bit nervous. What is your best advice to a new student on being confident about themselves?
Wow. That’s a good question. That’s a heavy question. I would just say they need to just believe in themselves, they need not be too… do you know genuinely, and I’ll try and find something funny to say around this, I remember when I started at university, everyone just sort of sees it as an opportunity to be a new version of themselves. They come in and they go “oh now I’m cool! Now I’m like Leonard Cohen.” And it’s like, just chill. Just chill out. Take it as an opportunity to chill, and you don’t have to prove yourself… and don’t do too many farts – that’s the funny bit. I think just chill and be yourself and don’t stress too much. And don’t drink too much. Don’t get too drunk. You’ll make a fool of yourself. That’s all I’ve got.
Catch them live at Enmore Theatre the 12th and 13th May for the Sydney Comedy Festival.