Surrealist sketch comedy posse Aunty Donna got a warm reception when they performed at the Adelaide Fringe last year, says actor and writer Mark Bonanno. “We’d never been to Adelaide before, and we sold out all our shows, and people were really keen, and we got really nice reviews!” says Mark. “We just felt so welcome! It kinda, like, blew our heads off a little bit. So all we want to do now is come back, and hopefully do another big kickass show that everyone enjoys.”
The group have had a busy year onscreen, working towards their new webseries 1999, after releasing their Fresh Blood pilot for the ABC in September. But Mark says that the group have learnt to keep their screen writing separate from their stage work. “When we write something for film, you can’t do that live, because it’s so inherently film. We used to do a lot more stuff live and then transfer it over to film, but we’ve found that we’re better off writing just the live show and just making it special and live and trying to throw ourselves into that medium. And then when we’re writing something for film, same deal.”
“You’re always entering into the complete unknown every time you go to write a new live show, but you get a bit better at navigating yourself through the unknown.”
From what I saw at last year’s show, your live act must take a lot of prep – what’s the process of putting that together? How long does it all take?
Mark Bonanno: Yeah, there’s lots of different phases to the rehearsal. When it starts off, we’re just pitching ideas, sitting at a round table and throwing out ideas that are just long enough to fit on a post-it note. Then we’ve got a wall covered in post-it notes, and we start picking out the ones that we like, and we start getting them up on their feet and trying to see if we can find anything funny in them.
We get all those ideas, when they’re really loose and we haven’t even written a script for any of them yet, and we put them up in front of an audience – which is the most soul-destroying, horrible thing you can ever do to yourself, because nothing’s ready, nothing’s funny, you have no confidence in it whatsoever.
MB: But it’s a trial-by-fire. You just do it, and you get it done, and if people laugh a little bit, then that’s great because maybe there’s something there, and then you can work on that.
From that huge bag of ideas, we start to write scripts, and then we learn the scripts, and then we perform that, and improvise around the scripts – and oh, man, it never ends! [laughs] We usually work together three to four days a week, for probably a good four months, all up. We started writing this live show, just working on the ideas, when we got back from Edinburgh around September. And then we took about a month break over the New Year, and started up again about mid-January. So – that amount of time! It’s quite long, and it’s pretty brutal, really gruelling, and there’s a lot of sweat.
The script is up to Draft Two at the moment (we usually do five drafts of the whole show), and so we’re going to be performing Draft Two in Sydney for the next week. After that we’ll have another draft up, and hopefully another one or two drafts after that; we’ll have another week to work on it, and really nut everything out, and get everything really really tight. We’ll just perform the hell out of it until it’s super super ready, and then boom! We’re gonna be in your town, baby.
We work hard, and it’s really lovely to hear you say that you noticed that, because it doesn’t come naturally – not for me, anyway. It comes from really, like, busting our chops to get every moment good. And that’s why we really like doing runs of festivals – the show just gets better the more you do it, which is really cool.
The lip-syncing section of last year’s show, for example, showed a great deal of prep from you guys – clearly a good idea, but one that you then rehearsed and rehearsed for ages.
MB: Thanks man – yeah, that’s where it all comes from. We’ve always said to ourselves that we’re performers first and writers second. We trained as actors at Ballarat University, where we all met, and the course that we did together taught you autonomy – it taught you not just how to be an actor, but how to make theatre, and how to put on a show and make it entertaining, and all of us took different lessons from that. So when we come together, I think that’s why we can be so precise and so tight, because that’s where our training is. Our training isn’t in writing; hopefully we’re getting better at writing by doing it, but we’re all very much physical performers that like to put on big, sharp, bombastic shows.***
These days, the Aunty Donna boys have the benefit of an online reputation that precedes them across Australia – with nearly ten million views across more than sixty videos. But Aunty Donna weren’t always best known for their YouTube channel. “I never really watched that much YouTube, never really understood the whole YouTube thing,” says Mark. “But we just thought, if people see us live, then we can give them a card that’s got the YouTube channel on it, and they can go home and watch some stuff, and that’d be really cool.”
At some point, that all changed. “Without us realising it, that philosophy flipped on its head – people started watching the YouTube content, and now that was why they were coming to the live shows. So when we saw that happening, we went ‘well, shit, this is where the audience is’.”
As well as putting their avant-garde comedy stylings in front of millions of extra viewers, Aunty Donna’s YouTube successes put them in the path of the Australian federal government’s film funding body, Screen Australia. “The webseries 1999 that’s coming out now is funded by them and Google, and the Fresh Blood pilot that we did was funded by Screen Australia and the ABC,” says Mark. “They’ve been big supporters of us, which is amazing.”
MB: “We’re so lucky that we got into the game when we did, by accident, basically. And that it was somewhat popular, because we’ve been able to use that to get some money, to make some more interesting stuff.”
And through their work with Screen Australia, Aunty Donna had another helping hand. While they produced their Fresh Blood pilot, the troupe were mentored by none other than Australian comedy legend Tim Minchin.
What was working with Tim Minchin like?
MB: Working with Tim was so cool, we were blown away. We got to Skype with him, and he was just in LA, doing his thing, because he’s just like a cool rock and roll dude, and he’s so funny and so generous. Nel Minchin, who produces our live stuff, got us in contact with Tim, and he saw our stuff, and he really liked us, and thought he could help, which he absolutely did.
If you’ve seen one of our videos, Bikie Wars, he’s completely responsible for the little beat when the cop comes in. He says, "I’m gonna to put you in [beat] handcuffies." We wrote it, and we sent him the demo, and he said, ‘Yeah, it’s good, but just put a little beat in there, before ‘handcuffies’", and we all went, "That’s a really weird note, but okay." And we did it – just because Tim Minchin told us to, and we didn’t want to say no! We didn’t fully understand why.
And then we started performing it live, and every single night, every single night without fail, that beat got the biggest laugh, ever. It’s the biggest laugh in the song. So we were just like, "He’s a god, he’s a god amongst men–"
– which is ironic, because he’s an atheist.
MB: [laughs] He’s just so smart, and so tuned in, and he worked with us on that level. He read our sketches and he was like, "They’re great, but that needs a little bit of work, that’s not making sense, you could do this."
It was sick, he’s just the best dude. Like, who on that level takes a couple of hours out of their ridiculous working week – which I’m sure would be brutal, and so busy – to sit down and watch some assholes doing fucking YouTube comedy, and think about it on a creative level, and then want to help? It’s just such a cool thing to do. So Tim’s got a very special place in all of our hearts.
What about 1999 – where did the idea for the 1999 series come from?
MB: That odd transition from ’99 to 2000, with everyone freaking out about Y2K, just seemed like an interesting place to put sketches. We’re not really telling a story – we didn’t really want to tell a story, we just wanted to be silly and as goofy as we could. But we said, "Let’s set it in an office, and let’s make it all look like the 90s". Because we think that’s a really cool, funny, awkward aesthetic – when computers were just fucking too big, and everyone’s suits looked shit. In retrospect it all just looks really goofy, it’s just a goofy time period.
It came from the desire to be able to do whatever the hell we wanted, but give it a nice thread. And we think that thread is more aesthetic than it is narrative, so hopefully people like that.
Final question – do you have a favourite skit that you’ve performed, either online or onstage? Perhaps one that you think is underrated or overlooked?
MB: Jeez – I think that’s a bit different for everyone. One that I really really love online – that I can’t believe people like – is Haven’t You Done Well, and specifically Haven’t You Done Well 2, because as ridiculous as this is going to sound, that comes from a very real place.
I was having lunch with my family one day and that sort of started to happen – where people were like, "Oh hey, your meal looks really nice, can I try a little bit of that?" And someone else was like, "Oh, can I try a little bit of yours?" And someone else was like "Oh, can I try a little bit of yours?" And everyone just started putting little bits of their meal onto everybody else’s plates. And no-one was addressing how stupid that was – because at the end of it everyone’s plates just looked a bit fucked, they had like four different smashed-up bits of meal on it.
So I was just like, "This is insane," And I wrote that little idea down, and pitched it to the guys. We wrote a little bullshit script and then improvised around it on the day. We just did some of the stupidest shit we’ve ever done, and made each other laugh all day.
MB: It was really really cool, and we just put it up and people really took to it, people really liked it! And now whenever fans see us on the street and stuff, one of the first things they say to us is, "Haven’t you done well?" They really like that.
With the live show – do you remember the pizza man sketch from last year, where I tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood? Again, I just can’t believe people liked it. It’s just so stupid and ridiculous. And it was funny because when we got reviewers, most reviews mentioned it – and it was either, "That was the highlight of the show," or, "That was the worst part of the show". And I loved that, that’s my favourite thing in the world.
Something that divisive is so important and so special. It’s really cool when you have something in a show that is fifty-fifty like that, where you don’t know how it’s going to go. You know, there might be two people in a row of ten who absolutely love it, and then the eight other people fucking despise it – and that to me is really really interesting, that’s how I like to play with comedy. So I’m really grateful to the other guys for letting me do that character, and incredibly blown away that anyone else in the world thinks that that’s funny.
Aunty Donna will perform their new show New Show at the Palace Nova from March 3rd to 6th.