Getting serious, but not too serious, with Paul McDermott

UPDATE: Comedian Paul McDermott was heading to Perth for an appearance at the Perth Comedy Festival, sadly he’s had to postpone his trip until later in the year. Here’s our chat which is still a lot of fun to read.

Since making his mark with the radical Doug Anthony All Stars, McDermott has been a constant presence in the Australian entertainment scene. For many years he provided a comical take on the world as the host as Good News Week, and more recently he’s been the Quiz Master on the ABC series Think Tank. 

OUTinPerth editor Graeme Watson caught up with Paul for a conversation about vocabulary, pandemics, politics and wrestling.

The blurb for his show Plus One is describes him as someone who has been “has been fighting tyranny, injustice and ennui for 40 years, armed only with comedy and a pretty voice” and labels the show as a “mellifluous wonder”.

As we catch up for a Saturday morning phone chat I confess that I had to reach for the dictionary to familiarise myself with both “ennui” and “mellifluous”, but I tell him I’m a better man now thanks to my increased vocabulary.

“Boredom, melancholy boredom. I think it’s probably a better way of putting it,” McDermott says of his publicity’s use of the French loanword. Which leads us into a discussion about 2020, the most melancholic year in living memory.

“To be honest, and I talk about this in the show, 2020 was extraordinary for me, I’ve never taken money from the government before.” McDermott says explaining that the global pandemic came right on the heels of his most recent tour.

“I was doing a show with Steven Gates from Tripod, and it was so schmick, it was right in the pocket.  We did our last show. It was towards the end of March. It was just before the first lockdown sort of started. We did our last show at the Freo Social, which was just extraordinary. There was like 500 – 600 people in that room, and it was just such a fabulous night. I remember ending the show by saying “This could be the last time we do this for a long time.”

“I didn’t realise how prophetic that would be. I got back to Sydney, and he went back to Melbourne, and then everything everything in the world changed.” McDermott said.

As the world changed it dawned on McDermott that the show would probably not be performed again.

“It was a phenomenal feeling because we lost everything, that that show has just gone now – into the ether. It won’t exist anymore, because everything that’s happened since then has been so radical in regards to our existence. The topics we were talking about, now seem a bit trite or less significant, because everyone’s gone through such extraordinary emotional change in that time.”

I share that during 2020 I found myself continually returning to the thought that we, as a society, may have collectively entered The Matrix. McDermott laughs as I list Donald Trump being President of the USA and a global virus as evidence we might be in an alternative reality.

“We exited The Matrix perhaps,” he responds. “We actually exited the cozy calm existence we’ve had for many years. It was completely unreal, but it has been unreal for many years, since Trump’s election in November of 2016. I couldn’t believe that anyone could vote for such a obviously deceptive con man, he just seemed like such an obvious con man. I didn’t understand how people in America could not see that he had a history of lying and cheating people, of having been fraudulent, of being racist.

‘Yet that that persona, and maybe through television, appealed to a great number of Americans.”

McDermott searches for the factors in the rise of Donald Trump, and a world where alternative facts and fake news came to the fore, before deciding much responsibility lay with the media.

“I think that just shows you how extraordinarily flawed either the education system is in that country or people’s perceptions of reality. How skewed they must be if they have propaganda machines like Fox News, spitting out narratives that are that are just editorialised opinion pieces. That’s the press we have, and we have the same here,” he said.

“Everyone gets up on their high horse and goes parading around, and you get those sad, generally white conservatives, basically right wing agendas disguised as opinions, sprouting out and then attacking the left. I mean it just seems so stupid to try and paint the left as these violent, crazy, organised people.

“I mean, really, the left just want something pretty simple, which is equality for people. That, then everyone’s treated the same. It doesn’t seem so extraordinarily horrific, you know, that that wealth is shared. I mean, it doesn’t seem so extraordinarily terrible.” McDermott said. “Whereas the right wing agenda seems to be steeped in violence, the hatred of the other, and all sorts of xenophobia.”

McDermott said he fund himself getting incensed when he saw right wing media trying to paint events like the Black Lives Matter movement, the Greta Thunberg Climate Strike or marches of the Me Too movement as the violent extremists.

“The people in those marches were just asking for women not to be abused at their places of work by men in power. They’re asking that the people listen to the science on climate change. And they’re asking the people of color, not be shot in the fucking street. It doesn’t seem like those are even extreme things.”

I share that I find the ever-diluted standards of the media troubling, noting that prior to our phone call I’d been writing a report about how multiple media outlets had covered a petition calling for a ban on fairy bread, when a simple Google search would shown it was a hoax.

“The story, or the fake story, is more important than the reality it seems.” I offered, “I’m just I’m just personally really struggling with ‘When did we leave truth behind for agendas?’ I find it very troubling.”

“It should trouble everyone.” McDermott responds. “I think Kevin Rudd is doing a great job of exposing some of the deceptions of the Murdoch Press, which is it’s odious. They’ve been a horror show for many, many, many years. Not just in Australia, but of course in America, with the Fox News Network, which is responsible for Roger Ailes and the rise of right wing media.

“If you look at their history as well, they, they cracked the phones in Britain and America of celebrities, they listened into their conversations, they read their text messages, emails – just absolutely hideous invasions of privacy.”

McDermott lists the response to News Corp’s phone hacking scandal in a Britain as an example of a growing culture where the most despicable acts, or gross incompetence can be treated with just a wrap over the knuckles.

“The Morrison Government’s doing the same things, every every single time that they are involved in a scandal, which is virtually every hour of every week. And yet no one is held accountable. No one is responsible. And no one has been kicked out of Parliament. But what has been reported in many instances as criminal activity. So this, this is a phenomenon.”

The echo chamber of social media is one of the challenges McDermott recognises.

“They’re just in the echo chamber of social media. Where on Twitter, if you’re aligned to One America News, or Fox, and you’re getting all those news feeds, all you’re getting is is the lie. Over and over again, you’re not getting any dissenting views or other opinions. If you’re a Republican that supports that sort of agenda and mentality, then everything you’re being fed, just like the QAnon people, is just an absolute fucking dumb-arsed gobbledygook.”

I ask McDermott if he’s engaged with TikTok, as I was impressed by how quickly it worked out I was gay, and then showed me nothing but gay content. Placing in my own little echo-chamber. He says he hasn’t really used the app, but can relate sharing that a friend recently told him about his adventures with the splaydle.

McDermott shares that his friend looked at just one wrestling video on YouTube but now gets a constant stream of wrestling content.

“He asked me if knew what a splaydle was,” McDermott shares, “It’s a wrestling term. It’s an actual wrestling term and basically involves the two wrestlers, who are in those ridiculously tight sort of onesies…”

I interrupt to comment that McDermott’s example of a social media echo chamber has suddenly become very homoerotic.

“It’s very homoerotic. This particular move involves one guy getting, I think, sort of half on top of but underneath the other guy, but with the guy’s legs splayed, and basically your your lycra-clad cock and ball sack is in the other guys face. And that’s where you win, as long as you’ve got his back pinned on the ground. He was saying he’s become obsessed with the splaydle, it’s such a great word.”

And I thought ennui and mellifluous were going to be my words of the day.

Asked if comedy can still heal our maladies, McDermott pauses and thinks.

“I don’t know any more.” he said. “It certainly can be an expression of rage and anger and good to laugh at the inequities of life. But, you know, was it Bertolt Brecht or Wilde who said, ‘a cabaret song never stopped a tank’. Comedians have been been persecuted by totalitarian regimes as far back as I can remember, because they chip away with words and ideas at those ideologies. So there have been people that have been playwrights, authors, writers, jokesters have been have been put against walls. And really, you’d have the best joke in the world but it’s not going to stop the bullets.

Paul McDermott’s  Plus One is on at the Comedy Lounge has sadly been delayed until later in the year.  

Graeme Watson, images: Tony Virgo.  

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