Interview with John Pinder by Amanda Smith ABC Radio National
Interview with John Pinder on ABC Radio National with his past Last Laugh Manager and ABC Presenter, Amanda Smith.Contributors
ABC Radio National
Interview with John Pinder on ABC Radio National with his past Last Laugh Manager and ABC Presenter, Amanda Smith.
AMANDA SMITH: If, whenever you turn on the TV, it seems to you that comedians are taking over the world, the person to blame in this country, perhaps more than anyone, is John Pinder. In the 1970s, John established the Last Laugh, the infamous alternative comedy cabaret venue in Melbourne, and in the 1980s, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
He then produced all sorts of comedy events and venues for the Adelaide and Sydney festivals, for example, and introduced countless Australian comics to the wider world through the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, although he actually started off in showing biz managing and promoting bands. John Pinder died on the 27th of May, 2015 of cancer.
I'm Amanda Smith, and this is an interview I recorded with him in 2011. John says he was always drawn to circus and vaudeville. He was born in 1945 and grew up in Oamaru, small town on the South Island of New Zealand and lived near a park where the circus would come to town.
JOHN PINDER: So once a year, you'd wake up in the morning to see 15 brightly painted trucks, a few elephants, some horses, a few monkeys, and a bunch of guys putting up a tent. And that was the beginning of an exciting week or so when all kinds of things could happen. So I remember seeing the Ashton's '50s-style circus with the lion tamers and his pith helmet with his whip and his gun on his hip.
And I was fascinated by that. And it was my first ever showbiz experience, I suppose.
AMANDA SMITH: What did you want to be when you grew up?
JOHN PINDER: I had no idea. I still don't know.
AMANDA SMITH: When and why did you move to Australia?
JOHN PINDER: It was after a night of carousing when I was about 20 with people I'd met at the pub and hung out with. We went on a bit of a wild rampage where we, among other things, we stole the big sign at the front of the American Consulate in Christchurch, where I was at the time a young first year cadet journalist.
And we suddenly got a bit nervous that we might be thrown in whatever-- Guantanamo in 1966 was-- for stealing their sign. And so I just left my typewriter on my desk at The Christchurch Star, my stuff in my apartment, and caught a lunchtime flight to Sydney and just kind of fell off the plane in Sydney and continued the carousing for some weeks.
AMANDA SMITH: Sometime in the '60s you were in Melbourne managing rock bands. You were producing live shows. And you set up a music venue, the TF Much Ballroom.
JOHN PINDER: I did, yeah.
AMANDA SMITH: Which I think was in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy.
JOHN PINDER: Yes it was, it was called Cathedral Hall in those days. It's still there. And it's called Central Hall. And it belonged to the Catholic Church. And in fact, it was the sort of hall for the Catholic Cathedral. And I think they had no idea what we were up to. But I used pay the rent to whatever they call the office of the Archbishop of Melbourne.
AMANDA SMITH: What sort of bands, what sort of shows?
JOHN PINDER: I'd actually been in Melbourne for several years at that time and had already done a few odds and ends. And I ended up with a couple of other people picking up a number of bands. I mean, we set up this new business, which was an arts promotion, music-based company with the lovely name of Let It Be. It had Proprietary Limited after it.
And we managed a number of bands, one of which was the soon to be Daddy Cool. It was Ross Wilson's band called the Sons of the Vegetal Mother. And we had Spectrum.
So when we decided we needed to promote our own acts because they weren't the biggest acts in town, I said, well, there's this funny old hall over in Brunswick Street in Fitzroy. Why don't we see if we can get it. So we booked it for probably $50, put out some flyers, talked about it round the inner city kind of hippie world and put on our first-ever show at what we called the TF Much Ballroom. I can remember the ticket prices. It was $2 to get in.
AMANDA SMITH: So then take us through your progression, John, from music into producing cabaret and comedy. I'm curious about where the crossovers were.
JOHN PINDER: My enthusiasm certainly rested in the area of mixing. I never quite understood why bands came off, finished their set, it took an hour to take five bits of equipment off and another hour for another five bits of equipment that looked exactly this time to be dragged on stage.
And I determined that we should run a show and have a host and do things in between, which we did. And it was partly because this venue had a proscenium stage and we could close curtains and have a setup happening behind curtains while an act happened upfront.
And we mixed up old-time vaudeville acts, the young Australian performing group Pram Factory, who were doing sketch comedy reviews, especially written bits and pieces that were funny. I'm trying to think what else we die. We had a man with a monkey and a one-wheeled bike one night, I can remember that. And we had a pit band, which played as well and could also play musical accompaniment for the variety acts we put on. And it was continuous entertainment.
AMANDA SMITH: Were you making any money out of this?
JOHN PINDER: I don't know whether we did or not. I made a living off it. We had 2,000 people paying $2. So that was a lot of money in those days. And it always packed out.
AMANDA SMITH: All right. So let's move on then from putting on gigs for 2,000 people to your first cabaret venue, which was a tiny little place in 1972, '73, again, in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, you set up the Flying Trapeze Cafe in what I think had been a fish shop.
JOHN PINDER: No, the fish shop was next door. And we maintained the smell of the fish shop throughout its life.
AMANDA SMITH: The interesting thing is that you called it the Flying Trapeze Cafe, but you wouldn't have actually been able to fit a flying trapeze in there, would you.
JOHN PINDER: You're absolutely right. You wouldn't have been able to fit a solo trapeze in there without dragging your knees on the tables. It was tiny and it had been a Polish cafe for working men, which was common in the inner city of Melbourne in those suburbs in those days.
I did that because I had come back from about a year or so in Europe and had been very excited about the time I'd spent there. In fact, I must have made money out of the TF Much Ballroom, because I went away with enough money to survive for a year driving around with hair down over my shoulders in a combi van with Gini my wife and my baby daughter Katie.
And I saw bring in theatre in Amsterdam, London, and Paris that just blew me away, including a very famous company called Le Grand Magic Circus, who were not a circus, they were a kind of alternative theatre company that weren't earnest. They were great believers in a good time. And they were great fun and I went back over and over and over again in London to see them, along with lots of other things.
The Roundhouse was a very hot venue in London. Its stuff was amazing. I was a consumer for a year. And it really opened me up in terms of the stuff that we had been doing was pretty damn good. But it showed me there were more things possible.
Even back in the time of the TF Much Ballroom, we'd hire Ashton Circus and run a rock and roll circus, which was a remarkable thing. And it was followed up-- I was told it was followed up by people in the UK who did the same thing but had picked up the idea from what we had done in Australia.
That was an amazing night, actually. The first chord of the first band was struck in the big top. And eight elephants from Ashton's decided they didn't like this at all. They pulled up their stakes. And it was in Richmond near the Yarra River and they all dived in the river.
AMANDA SMITH: The elephants?
JOHN PINDER: Yes, all eight of them. And Mervyn Ashton, who was Doug Ashton-- the patriarch of Ashton Circus' son-- spent the entire evening in a tinny in the river corralling the elephants so they didn't actually go too far away and fall over Dights Falls or whatever they do in the Yarra. I guess they could have swum out to sea and never been seen again. They were meant to perform. And of course, they didn't because they were swimming up and down the Yarra saying "this is far too loud for us".
AMANDA SMITH: Well, elephants have got big ears.
JOHN PINDER: They do have big ears. And they flap them round, apparently. But they got them out. They were kind of OK as soon as the music stopped. He had to corral them in the water until the music stopped.
AMANDA SMITH: What an extraordinary story.
JOHN PINDER: Sorry, that does it.
AMANDA SMITH: Well now, all right. So look, let's return to the Flying Trapeze Cafe. We'll move on. Did you have the sense that you're making a venue for performance and for a style of performing that already existed in Australia, or were you consciously working to create a style?
JOHN PINDER: I think that's a very good and interesting question. I've often said, if you build the venue, they will come. There's that terrible film about baseball. But I've been saying that for a very long time. And in the case of the Flying Trapeze, I had no idea who was going to turn up as a potential performer.
We built it as a novel little cafe based out of our experience of things in Europe, bars, so on. It was licensed to seat 24, and I think the biggest night we had something like 90 people jammed in, including tables and chairs that were brought by the punters and set out the doorway. And it started with taking the hat around.
And people came out of the blue. Amazing range of stuff.
AMANDA SMITH: Such as?
JOHN PINDER: Well, the ones who people might recall in some way were people like the late Steven J. Spears did a cabaret show, who wrote a play that went on Broadway.
AMANDA SMITH: The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin.
JOHN PINDER: Benjamin Franklin, indeed. Jane Clifton, who went on to be a star of Prisoner and so on, and as a singer, she did stuff. And then I went to see a review in the back theatre at the Pram Factory, which was this bunch of kids from the Architecture Revue of Melbourne Uni who had come off campus.
Rod Quantock, Mary Kenneally, Jeff Brooks, half a dozen of them. And it was funny, It was sketches. And I just said, you've got to come and do a show at this funny little joint we've got over in Fitzroy called the Flying Trapeze Cafe, and they did. And I think really that was one of the magic kick-through things. And they went of course to do Australia You're Standing In It, and Tim and Debbie, and become comedy legends.
And then we had people that did fire eating, who had to run through the crowd and blow fire outside and freak out people driving past in the tram. It was a fantastic place that was wild and a bit dangerous. And nobody had seen anything like the Flying Trapeze in Melbourne before.
AMANDA SMITH: John, did you ever want to be a performer?
JOHN PINDER: No.
AMANDA SMITH: Not at all?
JOHN PINDER: Never. Not interested. Terrible, I've tried. I've had to compare things at times, had to make speeches at friend's birthdays, funerals. I hate doing it. And I find it terrifying and I'm full of admiration for people who have the capacity to stand up in front of other people and do anything.
AMANDA SMITH: So what's the pleasure for you in facilitating other people to be able to do that?
JOHN PINDER: I like the idea of saying, I've got an idea, and I think I can talk a whole bunch of people into doing it. And then I can sit back and watch. It's as simple as that. And it's the make a venue and performers will turn up because you've created something that's the right thing for them to perform in. And then you can go to performers and say, I've got an idea.
AMANDA SMITH: Well, the Flying Trapeze Cafe, as you say, had a legal seating capacity of 24. So the economics of it were never really going to work. And you left Brunswick Street to go all the way up the road to Smith Street, Collingwood, to open a much bigger venue, The Last Laugh. First of all, how did you get the money together to create a theatre with a kitchen and a bar and an incredibly funky decor and all the rest of it?
JOHN PINDER: A very simple thing that was taught to me by my 50-50 partner in The Last Laugh, Roger Evans, that banks are shops that sell money. And we spent $60,000 in 1975 to get the doors open. And we were so close to the wire. I can't tell you the amount of money we owed the night we opened the doors would've been probably half as much, again, and that was a lot of money in 1976 for a couple guys.
AMANDA SMITH: Why did you call it the Last Laugh?
JOHN PINDER: There were various names. I liked all those names of those New York clubs, The Bitter End and The Bottom Line. And they were music clubs, but I liked they names, they had a touch of cynicism about them.
AMANDA SMITH: Well, what were your dreams for these new venue.
JOHN PINDER: Exactly the same. Build the venue and we'll work out what we're going to do in it afterwards. We wanted shows, we wanted dinner and shows, and we stole it from an old music hall in Melbourne called Tikki and Johns, who were the original dinner and show outfit in Melbourne. And they did a music hall, an old-fashion music hall show in those days.
And that was the format that we were working on. But we were coming from a very different, more contemporary position in terms of the sorts of entertainment we were interested in.
AMANDA SMITH: Well, one of the early shows at the Last Laugh was a group called Circus Oz, and it was their first ever show. How did it come about at your place?
JOHN PINDER: In fact, Circus Oz came into being, arguably, partly because of the Last Laugh. We had run a show with a group from Adelaide. They were called New Circus, which was Tim Caldwell and Sue Broadway and others, who went on to be part of Circus Oz.
Meanwhile, over at the APG, the Pram Factory, there was a jug band, a juggling troupe, that came out of that very broad church of theatrical endeavor with John Hawkes, Mick Conway, Captain Matchbox was the music, and various others. And they all came time together to do a show. And I think we may have talked them into it. And this thing called Circus Oz was created and played for something like 30 or 40 weeks at the Last Laugh.
That blew people's minds. I mean, people came to that from all over the world and said, we have never seen anything like this. It was alternative theatre, circus, new wave circus, in a dinner theatre bar environment. And I don't think anybody had ever done it before.
AMANDA SMITH: What experience did you want audiences to have?
JOHN PINDER: A good time. Really simple. A good time and be manipulated ruthlessly to attend what I wanted to put on. I had no interest in the audience's views of what they might want to see. I just wanted to do what we wanted to do and hoped the hell they'd come along, and they did.
AMANDA SMITH: At the Last Laugh, as well as the large auditorium downstairs, there was a smaller bar and stage upstairs. It started as a sort of late night venue mainly for music, I think, jazz singers, that sort of thing. Then in the early 1980s, you converted it into a stand up comedy venue, Le Joke.
Now, we're so used to stand-up comedians now. But then, in a way, stand-up comedy really was-- in my recollection, anyway-- was blokes telling blue jokes to other blokes in RSL and Leagues Clubs. Stand-up comedy was kind of old hat. What happened, what changed?
JOHN PINDER: To be honest with you, Sydney had started the Comedy Store. And Rodney Rude had started running effectively a school to teach people who wanted to become stand-up comics how to do it. And that was the sort of beginning of something that I observed.
And clearly, the sort of cabaretesque comedy-sketch comedy that we were doing had no place at that time in Sydney. And that bar upstairs, it worked for a while, but like a groovy late night bars, it faded.
And I then said, well, look this is what I'd like to do with it. And it was really quite hard. Some nights we would have trouble getting a lineup. That's how small stand-up comedy was in the context of Melbourne at the time.
I think the short boom in early stand-up happened out of Sydney. And it was typical Sydney. It was kind of in and out. And only three or four of those people ever survived. Rodney, I suppose, George Smilovici, Austen Tayshus, and a couple of others. Some of them came to Melbourne and, in fact, it was very interesting. The two cities were chalk and cheese. It was totally different.
AMANDA SMITH: In what way?
JOHN PINDER: Well, Sydney is where all those old-time comics lived and worked. The Leagues Clubs were actually a Sydney-- those RSL's and so on were a Sydney phenomenon. So you had that older generation of stand-ups. They were a tougher, more macho, male-oriented phenomenon. And we weren't doing that kind of stuff.
We were a bit more-- they thought we wussy. So there was a difference between the two cities that's probably the outcome of the kinds of people that started the business. And Rodney's an old-time comic. He's fantastic at it, and was fantastic at it.
But he was an old-time hard yaka-taka-taka comedian, really, who did his hard yards in front of biker gangs in Canada. So he had a newer generation audience. But effectively, he was the same as the old Leagues Club comic-- you know, take my wife.
AMANDA SMITH: Seems to me, John, that what you were doing in Australia with cabaret, with circus, and with comedy, with stand-up, you were kind of part of a wave that was reinventing the forms that by the 1970s and '80s were kind of pretty old-fashioned and moribund. Is that how you saw it-- see it?
JOHN PINDER: Yes. It's exactly how I see it. In fact, the finest program, Four Corners, came down and did a program very early on at The Last Laugh where they compared the old-time Leagues Clubs comics to what we were doing in Melbourne. And we were reinventing-- I now see a continuum that I didn't see then, which in hindsight, it's easy.
And I do have a great respect for the old-time stuff. And I mean, the circus is a very old tradition. And they're, you know, play a trumpet, stand on your head, and walk on a high wire and make people laugh is not something that's new. But the shape for a new generation was new. And it grew and it grew and it grew until it became a phenomenon that took over radio, took over television. And the joke was, you get a job as a bar man at The Last Laugh and you get your own series on Channel 7.
AMANDA SMITH: Or you get job as a waitress and you end up hosting--
JOHN PINDER: On Radio National.
AMANDA SMITH: Work on Radio National.
JOHN PINDER: I should tell the listeners that Amanda was a waitress and night manager at The Last Laugh--
AMANDA SMITH: Rose to the great heights of night manager. Part of all this, though, was also, John, wasn't it, the entry of women into comedy that's expanding at this time into stand-up comedy and character comedy. People like Wendy Harmer and Mary-Anne Fahey, and Gina Riley.
There were plenty of arguments around at the time about whether women could be as funny as men. And it is actually still a male-dominated field in and those arguments still continue. What are your thoughts?
JOHN PINDER: Initially, we would have thought that there was an absolute place, an equal place in sketch comedy and character comedy for women, but that stand-up was just too tough. And then along came Wendy and ripped the joint apart in a fantastic way and was able to handle an audience in that magical way that stand-ups can do just with a microphone and what they've got to say and they have to be able to deal with the moment, albeit not all improvised. But they have to deal with the moment in order to hold the atmosphere and continue the narrative, the storytelling, that they're doing.
So we made quite a conscious decision knowing I was a member of a community which was at the pretty much the cutting edge of-- I wasn't-- but pretty much at the cutting edge of feminism in the early mid '70s in Carlton-Fitzroy. And one was as a bloke confronted by that initially. And then went, well, hang on, yeah, this is fair enough.
And by the time people like Wendy came along, we had women technicians, one of whom would have been Ponch Hawkes, who was a founding member of Circus Oz and a well-known photographer.
We didn't have a self-conscious policy written in the drawer that said we had a positive discrimination attitude towards women. But we certainly did say, hang on, we've got to get into this.
AMANDA SMITH: Well, into the 1980s, John, as this new comedy stuff was taking off, you then started the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. At around the same time that you and Roger Evans sold The Last Laugh, so why the shift from running a venue to running a festival?
JOHN PINDER: We had produced, contrary to the history of the Melbourne Comedy Festival, we actually had produced internally the first Melbourne International Comedy Festival, which was quite an event. But it all took place at The Last Laugh, which was a pragmatic thing that they were a whole bunch of acts that we were able to trade around the festival circuit in Australia in February each year-- Adelaide, Perth, and so on.
And I had seen while I was in Europe a group called the Comic Strip, which was Alexei Sayle and pretty much the cast of The Young Ones and Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, all unknown London comics and sketch performers. So that the celebrations of whatever year it was supposed to have been are actually wrong about the Melbourne Comedy Festival.
And we did this thing the year before, which included the Comic Strip, about five other shows that did a big sweep around the country for short runs. And then. thought, well, hang on, this is not a bad idea. And when you say, I started, I was the first director, but there was actually quite a gang of people who made that Comedy Festival happen.
The time of the club as the core centre-- front and centre comedy attraction in Melbourne-- was going, so that the Comedy Festival was sort of a celebration of it moving on. And it was quite a modest event. And I think they were about 40 things happened the first year. And now there's at least five million.
AMANDA SMITH: At least.
JOHN PINDER: Yes.
AMANDA SMITH: Well, these days, there's certainly a fair bit of evidence that comedians have taken over the world, dominating on radio, on TV, and on quiz shows and sports panel shows and comedians are everywhere. What have you done, John?
JOHN PINDER: What have I done? Well, perhaps we gave birth to a monster. A monster that may have no teeth, sadly. I mean, I love the dangerous stuff. Now it's an industry. And it's a very successful industry. It's worth millions and millions of dollars, particularly to Melbourne.
But when I say a monster with no teeth-- how many of those people could proudly be looked back in history as people who have actually been angry about something. There's about five of them. So that's my disappointment is how the edge has disappeared.
Now I know, somebody's going to say, well, yeah, will get your ass out and go and see a local pub thing that's dangerous and mad. And yes, it's quite right. That is still happening. But I'm fearful for the position that comedy has put itself in, it's the dancing monkey of the mainstream media.
AMANDA SMITH: Well, in a moment, I'm going to ask you what you're most proud of from the time we've been talking about. But first of all, I want to ask you what you're least proud of.
JOHN PINDER: I'm by far least proud of the night we rented The Last Laugh to a drug company and they invited 200 doctors. And we allowed them from our stage to pitch the benefits of some drug they were selling for something or other-- lose weight or something of that nature. And I have never felt so ashamed of what I allowed to happen on that stage as that night.
AMANDA SMITH: Wow, all right. What are you most proud of?
JOHN PINDER: I don't know.
AMANDA SMITH: Well, what do you think The Last Laugh and The Flying Trapeze, what did they permit, what did they engender around the country?
JOHN PINDER: We didn't look to the rest Australia. We looked to the rest of the world. By the time we were five years into The Last Laugh, we saw ourselves as a venture which had a relationship with London, with the United States, and with Europe. We didn't relate to the rest of Australia.
We felt we were at a time when Melbourne was actually Melbourne had nothing going for it in spades. They were bloody tower out of pennies on top of the Arts Center. At 10 o'clock closing with no late night bars. We were one of two white Anglo-Saxon under-35 boys that had a license to trade until 3:00 in the morning in the whole city.
The licensing change in Victoria was still 5 to 10 years away. We were the only game in town. We were mainstream for our audience. But we managed to straddle this alternative mainstream. Saturday night was kind of suburban folks going for a night out and a birthday party.
Don't get it wrong. It wasn't always super hip. It got pretty hip by 2 o'clock in the morning. But you know, it was a general audience. And we were the only game in town at a time when Melbourne had no pride. And comedy became its pride as a result of what the artists and the venues-- and there were several others besides us-- did in the mid '70s.
AMANDA SMITH: OK.
JOHN PINDER: Did that sound really arrogant?
AMANDA SMITH: A little bit, in a really good way.
JOHN PINDER: But I think it's true. And I'm not claiming it to myself. I'm claiming it for a whole community of people who were interested in creating something fresh-- funny, alternative approaches to live performance. And they changed that city. Absolutely changed it.
AMANDA SMITH: Well, John Pinder, it's been great to speaking with you. Thank you.
JOHN PINDER: It's a pleasure. I feel as if you're doing my obituary.
AMANDA SMITH: That floored me. I have no idea what to say there.
JOHN PINDER: [LAUGHS] Good. That's comedy.
AMANDA SMITH: Yeah.
JOHN PINDER: Yeah.