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Funny ladies Denise Scott, Mary Coustas, Claire Hooper and Michelle Law share their life lessons

The Australian Women's Weekly sits down with four funny women to discuss the highs and lows of working in comedy.
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AWW: When did you first realise that you were funny?

Denise: I knew I was funny in secondary school, when we did a one-act Noel Coward play. I’d never acted but I fancied myself as an actress.I thought I’d just be fabulous. I auditioned and I got the role of the butler – I was so disappointed – but then, at the final rehearsal in front of the whole school, I came on wearing a bald wig, and the entire audience completely lost it – rolled about laughing. I was just delivering drinks but it took minutes for everything to settle down again and for me to shuffle off.

Michelle: At high school I didn’t want to be known as the kid with alopecia who everyone felt uncomfortable around, so I would put people at ease by making them laugh or telling a joke. It made them feel comfortable and then I realised there was power in that. It gave me an opportunity to develop my sense of humour so, in a lot of ways, I’m glad that happened to me.

Denise: Do you think, if you hadn’t had alopecia, that you would still have discovered you have a comic voice?

Michelle: Yes, but it wouldn’t be the voice that I have. My family is a funny bunch of people. There were five kids in the house and we were always joking around. It was also a coping mechanism because we were one of the few Asian families on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. My childhood was mired in Pauline Hanson’s rise in the ’90s. I grew up with people screaming, “Rice!” and “Go back to China!” at me.

Growing up, did you want to be famous?

Claire: Yes. You wanted to be famous because you wanted to be one of those people who you saw your parents admiring. Surely there was no greater person to be than someone your parents would watch on TV.

Funny ladies Michelle Law, Denise Scott, Mary Coustas and Claire Hooper. (Image: Julian Kingma)

Is fame dangerous?

Claire: I think fame is dangerous. We’re meant to live in little villages. The idea that you pop up on a TV show and there are half a million people watching you – I don’t think it’s good for us.

Denise: I use the word fame very loosely. I’ve lived in the same neighbourhood, in the same house, for 35 years, and I still have neighbours who go: “Oh my God, I think I saw you on TV yesterday. How long have you been doing that?” They’ve never seen me on TV before. So I personally don’t have any dangerous stuff with that level of fame. But I think trolling is a most disgusting sport. I mean, the meanness I’ve seen, especially doing shows like Studio Ten and Have You Been Paying Attention? The people who watch those shows are glorious but the people who write on their Facebook pages are there for sport – “you’re fat, you’re ugly” – it’s on every page.

Mary: I went into the arts for similar reasons to Michelle. Growing up in the ’70s, in a white, middle-class suburb, there was no place for someone who looked like me. The arts felt like a place where I could go and express what I needed to express in the company of others who got me. Then I decided to make it my profession but I had no understanding of how far-fetched that idea was … There was no place in the industry for someone who looked like me – it felt a bit like being back in high school. I was told that I didn’t have the right look but I didn’t quite know what that meant until I looked at my 8x10inch photo, driving back from my first meeting with an agent. I realised: Oh, it’s not what I’m wearing, it’s actually my face.

The more I heard of things like that happening to people who looked like me or like Michelle, who were in the minority at the time, the more ambitious I became to do well. I felt people like us needed to be commercial because there were other people like us out there who needed to feel like they belonged – and sometimes we look to popular culture to remind us we belong. So that was a positive thing about becoming famous. I don’t consider myself famous – I think Effie is far more recognisable than I am – and maybe she’s helped people feel they belong.

Mary says growing up, there wasn’t room for someone who looked like her in the industry. (Image: Julian Kingma)

Why did you choose comedy?

Mary: My vocal cords are a crime against humanity. I went to school with the Ceberanos. Kate was younger than me and she would sing the National Anthem in assembly. Her brother Phil and I were siblings in Annie Get Your Gun. I remember thinking, how am I getting away with being such an appalling singer and being in a musical? But I decided I wasn’t going to let my vocal limitations get in the way of the good time I was having on stage. So that pushed me in a more comical direction.

Do you think Effie has changed Australia?

Mary: Recently, I was part of a debate for the Diversity Council. I was debating as Effie and Tony Jones, who was the moderator, asked Effie if she would consider going into politics. I said, “The problem with politics is that it’s too political. You can’t get enough done.” I think what we’ve come to realise is that comedy is the most potent political capsule you can put out there. People want to swallow what you’re selling them because it’s fun and funny and light, but always in that capsule is a lot of information and emotion, either addressing stuff that’s difficult or putting across your own point of view. Comedy is a very powerful tool to do that. And I think Effie is actually more relevant now. As much as we broke ground back then, you’ve got to continue with that jackhammer.

Michelle: Effie was huge for me, growing up on the Sunshine Coast, being able to see you on TV, coming from a culture that was a minority. It was a beacon of hope.

Claire: You’re telling people who are watching that their voice is important. When you go on TV and you’re funny, you’re telling young women that they’re allowed to make jokes…and noise. Traditionally women weren’t supposed to be funny or loud.

Denise: I grew up in that era. There were nine kids in my dad’s family – five brothers, four sisters – and there were often performances. The five brothers would perform – sing their songs – and the women would laugh and do the dishes. It was all fun, but never did a woman stand up and perform. Then I just started tagging along at the end because I liked doing it. But it took me until my fifties to feel comfortable being a woman on stage as myself.

The women tackle the hard hitting questions. (Image: Julian Kingma)

What changed in your fifties?

Denise: It was when my friend Lynda Gibson died. I spent a long time with her when she was dying and I just thought, what am I doing? If I don’t get this right the next time I go out on stage, I am quitting. What a waste of a life! It really got into me. Basically, I stopped caring what people were going to think or do. I had to stop caring. I wish I’d discovered that 25 years earlier.

Are you conscious of the way you use your body as a woman on stage?

Mary: I try to keep it as physical as I can. Effie is all about selling herself as the hottest thing around and so much of the comedy comes from the delusion of that. I use that comically but I don’t want to heap joke upon joke, so she does look → okay. I want them laughing for the right reasons.

Denise: Once again, I go back to when Lynda was dying. We happened to be doing a show together with Judith Lucy. Lynda was the person who created the flesh-toned leotard with pubes drawn on it and nipples and a bum crack. And because this show had become quite traumatic for all of us, we decided to do it, all three of us, in our flesh-coloured leotards. We looked disgusting really but it was just like we were stripped as bare as we were ever going to go. It was quite liberating. Ever since, Judith and I always work the leotard into our shows. In the last one, we did Olympic ribbon dancing in our flesh-coloured leotards and people loved it. It’s really the most demystifying – humiliating but demystifying – thing.

By the time this issue comes out, we’ll be swamped with election propaganda. Was anyone ever tempted by a political career?

Denise: No! Though I was at an event some years ago and this woman came up to me and said, “I was a few years ahead of you at school and I just want to apologise for dropping you from the debating team because you were too funny and not serious enough about it.” I remembered that day and I wanted to say to her, “You know what? I never got over that.”

I was devastated. I loved debating and I was dropped in Year Nine and never allowed to debate at school again. She was apologising, and of course

I said, “No, no, that’s fine,” but I was thinking, “I could have been a great Prime Minister!”


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What’s so funny about politics?

Denise: When I started off, I tried to do political stuff. The lefty political groups would employ me, people like Joan Kirner, bless her. You never got paid of course. But I just wasn’t across political content enough to actually address it. I think laughter is a great release – I can’t imagine not laughing at tough times – with politics we’ve got some pretty fantastic material to work with. I mean, hello Bob Katter.

Mary: I think having a laugh about politics gives a little of the power back to people.

Do we need more women in parliament?

Claire: I’m a woman with a young family and I would like to be represented in parliament but I would not in a million years sign up for the sort of weekly schedule that a politician has. You’ve got to have a partner who is willing to take a huge chunk of the load. You’ve got to have a nanny. You’ve got to accept that you’re going to be missing for weeks of your children’s lives. I would like to see more male politicians with children fighting for flexibility for themselves. There is research that shows that men become better in the workplace if they have taken time off to be with children. Their patience, their management skills, their empathy are all improved. Make politicians take an obligatory year off with family and then come back and run the country.

Denise: For me the fascination lately has been around how women get treated when they actually get into parliament. I was really shocked by the bullying. I did not expect that to be happening in 2018. I did not expect mature, educated men to be talking to women in that way.

What topics should never be used in comedy?

Mary: I feel like you can almost go anywhere as long as there’s some humanity about the way you go there. You can be outrageous but there’s got to be genuine heart and care factor. And the more personal it is, the better it should be.

What makes you laugh the hardest?

Claire: People falling over.

Michelle: Yep, physical comedy, clowning.

Mary: The choreography in Blades of Glory.

Michelle: Anything Amy Sedaris does.

Denise originally dipped her toes in politics. (Image: Julian Kingma)

When was your last belly laugh?

Denise: When my partner, Jeremy, tried to help me jump into the air on Dancing with the Stars. My feet haven’t left the ground in years! We both cried with laughter.

What’s the most important thing comedy has taught you about yourself?

Michelle: That I have a voice and it’s worth listening to.

Mary: It’s the place I go to renew my optimism. Sometimes my mind reminds me of those balls made from rubber bands. I think you need to take what’s in your head and put it out to the world and unravel the complexities of how we think and what becomes a big deal. Even in my darkest moment, somehow I found jokes. It was the only safe way I could survive that experience. It was when my daughter was stillborn. Just before it happened my doctor said to me, “There’s no turning back from this moment. She’s alive now but she won’t be when she comes out.” I remember letting out a sound that didn’t even sound human. Then they gave me laughing gas, and it was on. I don’t know how I’d have made it through that without humour. It’s incredible how it turns up when you need it. It was the only way I could distance myself enough to get through. It was a joke to take me outside of it; to get a bit of oxygen because I knew what was about to happen.

What’s given you the greatest hope this last year?

Michelle: The kids. The kids are alright. The climate change rallies those kids organised – that was really inspiring.

Mary: The only thing that worries me about this generation is I’ve never heard the word anxiety uttered so many times. Every second young person I’m close to suffers anxiety. They are so smart, but they’re anxious.

Michelle: That’s why they’re so anxious. I saw my first psychologist when I was nine or 10. I think she was trying to make me feel better, and she said, “It’s always the smart kids who need psychology.”

Claire: I feel like my answer is a bit rubbish compared to Michelle’s but the thing that gave me hope was that I made 24 jars of jam! My fruit trees had a really good year.

What makes these funny women laugh will leave you surprised. (Image: Julian Kingma)

What kind of fruit trees?

Claire: Plums, pears, apples. We’ve planted corn and that’s going really well. And flower seeds we scattered grew this year.

Do you live in a paddock?

Claire: Yes, we have one of the last big inner-city Melbourne backyards. Every year your trees don’t do well, you feel like the world is descending into the apocalypse. Then you have one year where your backyard has abundant offerings and suddenly you feel everything’s going to be okay.

Mary: I feel like that with my daughter. All the planting of seeds is bearing fruit. When they’re babies, you keep them dry, rested and fed but when my daughter’s teacher said to me, “Jamie really loves her life,” I felt that sense of abundance. My kid knows she was wanted. As many negatives as others might see in becoming a mother at 49, my kid knows she was fought for and wanted. And she feels abundant. You can plant trees, fertilise them, you can hope, but when you start to see the patch you’ve been devoting yourself to doing well, it reignites your optimism about the future. Thank you, ladies. You have been wonderful.

Read more stories like this in the March edition of The Australian Women’s Weekly. On sale now!

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