10 years ago, politicians could safely walk the streets of Australia without fear – of being accosted by oversized black dildos, hecklers, chainsaws or novelty cheques made out to Saddam Hussein. This, fortunately, changed in 2001, when Charles Firth, Craig Reucassel, Julian Morrow, Dominic Knight, Andrew Hansen, Chas Licciardello and Chris Taylor put their savvy little heads together and produced the first of many programs to come, The Election Chaser. The boys, having met during and after their time at The University of Sydney, began developing their commendably crass sense of humour in 1999 for their student newspaper The Chaser. It was in this humble little paper where the boys fine tuned their sardonic brand of humour and, more importantly, caught the eye of one Mr. Andrew Denton who appeared with a television proposal soon thereafter… and here we are today. 2010, six television shows and a considerable number of court appearances later and the boys are poised for the DVD release of their latest program, Yes We Canberra. Pedestrian recently sat down with Chris Taylor to discuss the death of stunt comedy, how to pitch to Denton and the benefits of anonymity.
So Chris, how did you personally come to be part of the chaser team? Well, Chas and Charles Firth and Dominic Knight were Grammar boys and we all had Sydney Uni in common, but I didn’t actually go through Uni with any of them except Julian. I was sort of leaving just as Charles Firth was entering, and Charles Firth was very much the driving force of The Chaser (Newspaper) so Charles, Craig and Andrew sort of begged, borrowed and stole to start the newspaper. I was living in Melbourne at the time as a journo for the ABC and through friends became aware of this thing called The Chaser. This was all about the same time The Onion was cutting through America and I loved that. The Chaser was doing something similar and I always wanted to be a comedy writer, but you never really know how to become one, so I timidly emailed Charles Firth and then I started writing for them, and then when the TV opportunities came around they invited me to be part of the writing team and I was so flattered I quit my job and came back to Sydney.
And what were your first impressions of the other guys upon meeting them all? Look I vaguely knew of them because, as I said, I was leaving Uni as they came in and Charles, Craig and Andrew were reasonably prominent around campus, with things like theatre sports and Honi Soit (Sydney University Student Newspaper).
I sort of thought they were wankers and they would have thought the same of me. I mean everyone is at their worst during their student days, trying to impress everyone, impress girls or make a name for yourself on campus but I admired their ambition, especially once The Chaser had started, I admired that they were out there trying to do something. And the more I got to know them the more I realised that I was the wanker and they were all quite humble and lovely boys and I was the one with all the hang ups. I’m incredibly indebted to them, because they were such a little clique…

Was it hard to break into that? Well, I’ve never really asked the guys whether there was any division about letting other guys in, because Chas and I were the two outsiders, and I’ve never really asked them what sort of politics went down. So I felt very lucky having being asked into this little clique. I remember that first show we did where we piloted with Andrew Denton and we road tested in different roles and I ended up getting one of the anchoring roles and I felt bad because these other guys had started this thing up and I had sort of ‘tread on toes’.
Andrew Denton has obviously got a lot of respect for you guys and what you do, giving you that foot in the door. How would you go about pitching an idea to Andrew in those early days? He sort of pitched to us in a bizarre way. He was doing Triple M breakfast at the time back in the days when people still listened to Triple M and they only played Cold Chisel four times an hour and not six…and I think he was coming to the end of his ‘tenure’, for want of a better term. He wanted to get back into TV, but not as a star or anything, rather as a producer. He had seen The Chaser newspaper and saw an irreverence in it that had been missing from TV and he sounded us out and said “you guys don’t owe me anything but if you ever have any ideas for a TV show one day I’d be very keen to produce it and use whatever experience and clout I have to help you learn the ropes of what can be a very difficult industry”. He really put it back on us, because none of us had been thinking about TV, we just had this little student newspaper as a hobby but the minute Andrew said that we started thinking very quickly about TV. And that’s how we arrived at the idea of The Election Chaser. It just happened to be an election year, which suited us because an election show would be short, so if it were a disaster it would be off very quickly.

Sam De Brito of the Sydney Morning Herald recently wrote that you guys are more or less ‘that annoying guy down at the pub’, that you’re basically just ‘paid to make fun of political figures on national television’, what do you say to that? Where do you draw the line between taking the piss and adding to the discourse of issues? I don’t think we’ve ever tried to add to the discourse. I’ve always just seen the chaser as a piss-taking undertaking. We’re just there making fun of people. Sam is absolutely right; we do just get paid to make fun of people who are more important and intelligent than us. And there’s a long tradition of that, from the court jesters of medieval England up until now and I would hope that in a liberal democracy there would be room for that, for people to stand on the sidelines and throw pebbles at those in charge, and we never thought we had any influence or changed public debate or policy, and the day that you think you do have that influence is the day you should give up. No, we’re just a bunch of hacks taking the piss.
Are there ever moments where you’ve felt scared… in terms of your own safety or maybe the consequences of a particular sketch? I know you guys have had a number of run-ins with the authorities, have there ever been any moments where you’ve thought ‘holy shit what the hell are we doing?’ Um, they’d be surprising ones. See, the ones we got in trouble for we never really saw coming, like Chas with the bulldogs supporters kit, or APEC. Then there was the Make a ‘Realistic’ Wish campaign – that wasn’t legal trouble but a moral minefield. Those ones we knew they were risqué but we thought they were entirely in keeping with what The Chaser did. But as you said, it’s often safety fears more than legal fears, like we’ve shot in jelly wrestling rings and there’s a mob of angry men high on booze and you don’t really know if the mob will turn. There have been some weird ones too. Shooting in the Devonshire tunnel with buskers and they suddenly pull a knife on you. So shooting on real locations is always unpredictable.

And objectively, your humour and your formats, do you feel that you guys have changed a lot …from the days of CNNNN to Yes We Canberra? I’m concerned we haven’t changed enough, for better or for worse. There’s a type of comedy fan who likes familiarity and the same thing and while we’ve tried to evolve our skills and our format a little bit, I think its fair to say that everything we’ve done paints with the same colours, each show has been a combination of topical comment, stunt and sketches. So I feel its time now for us to get out of our comfort zone, either as individuals or collectively. I know a couple of us umm-ed and ahh-ed about Yes We Canberra, we knew we could do it but it felt like we were treading water. Whatever we do next has to involve a change, because if we just keep doing the same thing we’ll get bored and I’m pretty sure the audience will too. We need to step out, find that new project, anything from an underwater ballet to a drama about drug culture in Baltimore, we don’t know what it is yet, but we will roll the dice and take a risk on whatever is next.
We all had quite a nasty shock with the recent political whirlwind…how annoyed were you when Kevin basically got ‘ratfucked’ as you say, how much of Yes We Canberra had to be changed? We were lucky and unlucky. Lucky in that we hadn’t actually filmed anything, we hadn’t filmed a whole lot of Kevin sketches, however we had written a lot, and researched a lot. We done a lot of reading and writing about the personality of Rudd and the way his kitchen cabinet worked and the way he was an autocrat and it was this fertile field, which we were really excited about. And then there was the spill and there were a couple of really nervous days where I think some of us swore more than Kevin Rudd probably has but that’s the nature of topical comedy. All you can do is react to real time events. It was hard to say a lot about Gillard, because unlike Howard or Rudd, she hadn’t been in very long, she hadn’t had a chance to rack up a catalogue of transgressions and things to go her on. But thankfully politics being politics she managed to give us a lot of fuck ups very quickly. I was always surprised when people in the media said what a boring campaign it was, I thought it was fascinating. Yes it was very sterile, yes it was very stage-managed but we knew from day one it was gonna be incredibly close. I think when Yes We Canberra was at its best it was keying into just how bland political campaigning had become, and we looked at issues the rest of the media wasn’t, like indigenous affairs, mental health or Afghanistan.

In terms of the results since, what are you thoughts on how the country now sits politically? Well I thought it was a very appropriate result, I think both parties were so pathetically underwhelming, the only result was to have a dead rubber. Neither deserved to win. It was like a poker game, you know, nobody knew what cards people had…in a bizarre kind of way, having a hung government or even no government is a good way to get some real policy through. I don’t have a lot of confidence in the parliament’s ability to stay stable through a whole term but I do have confidence in its ability to pass some maverick legislation and it’ll be a fun ride.
You guys have done four elections now, do you think now you’re at a point where you’re done with elections? Well we say that every time, I’m always wary of saying ‘never’ but sitting here now I am fairly confident in saying we probably will never do another one. If we do do another one, can you come round and punch me? See there’s two arguments, one is that it’s sort of like Roy and HG covering every grand final, it’s tradition, The Chaser has to cover the election. They’re really fun shows, and if that’s my only job prospect in the next 3 years I’ll take it happily but I am keen for something new.
So in terms of Yes We Canberra, what was your favourite sketch to perform? I was very pleased with Life At the Top series…
Now can I ask, was that genuine, or did you guys just dub that? No no! Everyone always asks that. I’m sorry people think that, I mean I guess its not surprising, but we went to Darwin and saw some indigenous people from a community and we went to great pains to do it, we didn’t want to incorrectly subtitle them, even though we’ve been incorrectly subtitling Osama Bin Laden for years, I guess we didn’t feel the same sense of loyalty to him. I just had this feeling indigenous affairs wouldn’t be on the agenda so I thought it was be funny to see indigenous people talk about everyday white peoples issues the way we talk about YouTube…by way of highlighting the disparity between white and black Australia.

You studied momentarily at NIDA doing a one-year play writes course? Do you use a lot of the skills you learnt there in your work now? No, not at all. Look I think I was too young when I went to NIDA, I was straight out of Uni, and it was basically an attempt to disguise the fact that I was unemployed, if I kept studying nobody would notice the fact that I didn’t have a job. I guess I learnt about the discipline of writing but I don’t think I learnt a lot about writing the sort of comedy I went on to write. I did learn however that there’s a little bit of musical theatre in all of us, a little “Glee” in all of us, so in doing our musical sketches and working collaboratively with incredibly talented people like Andrew Hansen has been great. I’m the Bernie Taupin to his Elton.
Now that you guys have had such success, you’re well recognised, do you find that that ‘fame’ or at least the fact that you’re vaguely recognizable has impacted upon you negatively? Well look there’s 20 million people in Australia and I think only about 1 million watch the show so I think the odds are still reasonably good. We do film largely around the inner city, Sydney and Melbourne where most people watch the ABC. It can work for you and against you. Yes every poli knows we might be coming but particularly in Yes We Canberra you can see that we eased off on those confrontations, the polis would try to be funny and it’s just embarrassing when a politician tries to be funny. At the same time it actually gives you some license to do things in public that ordinarily you couldn’t. There might have been a time when we would rock up to Macquarie Bank and they’d pull security immediately, but now they say ‘oh its just The Chaser, let them do their thing, it might be good PR for us’. But the essence of your question is right, we’ll never have that beautiful anonymity where we can catch someone unawares. Comedy moves in cycles, and I get the feeling stunt comedy is possibly coming to an end. I don’t know, like I thought Bruno was less interesting than Borat, I think you can see the manipulation more. People can see in The Chaser’s work or John Safran’s work; where your presenting things as real but they are clearly massaged a little. It was a really interesting period there for a while, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mike Moore, Safran and us doing this sort of ambush comedy but I think its coming to an end.

What do you get up to when you’re not working on the shows? Well I play cricket, I’m in a feebly hopeless team called The Mighty Ducks…I didn’t come up with the name so I take no responsibility. Loveliest guys, but worst cricketers you’ll meet, we’ve come bottom of the table for last 8 years I think.
Do you and the boys ever hang out socially? Um we don’t all share a house together, its not Bert and Ernie with matching pyjamas tucking each other in, but ‘cos we have so many friends in common its inevitable we see each other at the same parties and functions. I think we value our time apart, we’re so in each others’ face when filming. Plus most of them are married with kids, the last thing they wanna do is hang out with me in a Surry Hills bar at 4am.
So the single man of the pack hey? Where would the ladies meet you for a drink of a weekend? Villawood Detention Centre? It’s weird, its kooky..
BY LUCY CORMACK