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An 85-year-old comedian walks into a bookshop…

Comedy / Maurice Murphy. At Smith’s Alternative Bookshop, February 18. Reviewed by SIMON COBCROFT

Australia’s ability to take itself very, very sillily, distinguishes it from most countries. I mean, seriously, what other country would draw a chalk mark around a drunk politician and festoon it with cans of beetroot?

The culprit of this recent act of Australian goofery boasted of his deeds before a small audience at
Smith’s Alternative bookshop. It was a rare opportunity for Canberrans to hear from the elusive
Australian graffiti artist known as Banksia.

Tish boom!

Thus, began the first gag of the evening from Australian comedy royalty, Maurice Murphy.

Maurice what-the-hey-who-now? Well, as Maurice was keen to remind his audience, he was the guy who directed the influential pre-Python series, The Complete and Utter History of Britain. The guy who then went on to introduce Aunty Jack and Norman Gunston to Australian screens as the head, and some might say, heart, of ABC Entertainment. The guy who made the first selfie TV series, Let’s Do Lunch. And the guy who directed many almost-there and overlooked films such as 15 Amore.

But what Maurice was more cagey about mentioning was that he was also the guy who directed the
rudey-nudey Alvin Purple TV series. The guy responsible for the embarrassing Exchange Lifeguards movie, that David Stratton described as having the ambition of “Porky’s on the beach” but “falling short of even that modest aim”.

And the guy whose older work involving women and LGBTIQA+ folk, might not have dated that well. At one point, Murphy did try to “big-up” his many female assistants which, while well-intentioned, ultimately came across as patronising and a bit, well, ‘icky.’ He is a man of a certain age.

So, while Maurice told entertaining stories about his many successes, the show would have been
better if he had also embraced his personal and professional failures along with the changing nature of comedy. How is an old-school comedy-guy like him now coping in the febrile environment of “approved” humour? Or, can he talk us through what the freaking hell he was thinking while making some of his most “cringe” shows?

I shouldn’t have to provide an egg-suction class, but laughing at failure is at the heart of comedy and what endears a comedian to an audience. Maybe Maurice was afraid of coming across as too fond of the past and too bitter about the modern world and, thus, dividing his audience? Not that things need to be an either-or proposition.

Many older comedians have shown deftness in re-adjusting their comedy sights to modern targets, without being cancelled. All I know is that the safely buttoned-down version of Maurice’s life drew only polite laughter from the crowd at Smith’s. There was no “laughing like a drain,” as Norman Gunston used to say.

And that was a shame as Murphy is an amazing man with lots to give. To be fair, this was his first
time doing this act, and he did seem to suffer from some stage nerves. But once Mr M was in the

zone, he was astounding. An 85-year-old with the physical gait of a 20-year-old, telling vintage stories for more than two hours with such clarity and detail that it was hard to believe they hadn’t
occurred yesterday.

The throughline of Maurice’s show was his mother and the wisdom and woe she had inflicted on
him throughout his life. This was quite touching and could have been strengthened to make the
show more cohesive. Unfortunately, Maurice often rambled off on tangential tales that didn’t really go anywhere and that lacked a solid punchline.

I found my mind frequently wandering, and wondering: “What is the point you are trying to make, Maurice?” But then my mind would scold me with the fact that this is an 85-year-old dude doing all this from memory, so stop picking fault with the old nag’s mouth.

Maurice was able to invoke the audience to dewy-eyed sniffles with his story of his mother telling
him that her husband, Maurice’s dad, loved her but never liked her – the distinction being that love is primal but liking involves choice.

Equally moving, was the story of Maurice’s old-fashioned courtship of his current girlfriend; which was a real nice bit of mush to counter today’s more utilitarian world of swiped relationships.

To my surprise though, the highlight of the show occurred when the applause subsided, and Maurice asked if anyone had any questions. Hands shot up and Maurice went to park his tired bum on a stool to answer them. Here, he was relaxed and let loose with some affable effing and jeffing about old TV colleagues; invoking the William Goldman maxim, that “nobody knows anything” in showbiz.

This then segued into a ribald tale about Frank Thring and, finally, a hilarious story about then
Channel 9 boss, Sam Chisolm, and his insane interest in Alvin Purple.

The golden gloves were at last unlaced, and the audience shifted from apprehensive attention to
cackles of warm laughter. After two hours, the show had finally started. The 85-year-old Maurice
was, once again, joyously ripping our bloody lungs out.

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