Eddie Perfect is an eternal optimist, striving to change the world, one satirical show at a time. Below, he tells us about his early education under Max Gillies, what it means to make a career from satire, and how this ancient form of comedy has improved the way we live.
Satire is best served without a wink or a nudge. To let an audience in on the joke is unforgivable; to give an audience an ‘out’, cowardly. The only crime worse than making safe is the act of an author laboriously penning an explanation of his or her intentions. I will endeavour to avoid making that mistake here by instead touching on some of my experiences working within the form of satirical comedy.
You may regard these words as a kind of whinge, or needy balm to soothe the accumulated cuts and bruises of failure. I can’t really apologise for that, for while I’m grateful to have had the rare privilege of being able to sustain a living through my art, it is dishonest to discuss satirical form without discussing failure. For what is satire but the art of making the middle class (of which I am a card carrying member) feel bad about themselves in a manner entertaining enough to avoid being lynched when the curtain comes down? What is satire but the promise of a better way to exist? A more compassionate way to act? Satire is a form of exposure therapy; it confronts us with the worst of ourselves in order to inspire change. But can satire change us? If we are unable or unwilling to change, has satire failed? Since the world we inhabit is objectively unhinged, can we expect satire to really work anymore? Did it ever? Boy, I bet this is filling you with confidence.
In 2004 I walked into Max Gillies’ dressing room at the Brisbane Powerhouse and found his table covered with hand-written letters [from the audience]. We’d just started a run of The Big Con, a night of Max’s satirical characters set in a right-wing think tank. I wrote and performed satirical songs and acted as an MC, covering Max’s complicated costume, wig and make-up changes. Temptation got the better of me and I read some of the letters. Each of them (in one way or another) pined for Max to return to previous form – that this show had crossed that invisible line from ‘clever and incisive’ to ‘offensive and lewd’. This was my first show performing to a broader, more theatrically literate audience than the ones who filled the comedy, cabaret and fringe venues I was used to. I was dejected.
Max let me in on a secret; people always preferred the previous show. Satire, he told me, is an art form that becomes safer, more palatable with the benefit of time. Time had a way of sand-papering off sharp edges and editing out discomfort. According to Max, every new show was met with correspondence that praised shows previous, penned by an audience reeling from the discomfort of seeing the worst of themselves and their public figures amplified to a ridiculous (and malicious) comic extreme. At the time I found it reassuring; maybe we’re getting it right? Fifteen years later, I still don’t know what ‘right’ is.
Since my apprenticeship with Max Gillies, the bulk of my career has involved writing, performing, discussing and defending satire in one form or another. From first-hand experience I can tell you I find it to be an art form that is certifiably masochistic in both its creation and consumption. I’ve been heckled off stage at trade union rallies, sacked mid-song at a fundraiser for Ronald McDonald House, experienced walk-outs and protests, received death threats, and paid more money than I care to admit for advice from defamation lawyers. It should be said I’ve also had a great deal of fun.
Writing and performing satire is unpredictable, uncomfortable and often confusing. Is the audience laughing? Stop pulling your punches. Stop preaching to the choir. Is the audience booing? Walking out? You’ve missed the mark. You’re merely aiming to shock. You’re no good anyway. Satire often feels like it’s either a cosy blanket for warmly affirming the ideologically aligned, or a kind of theatrical kryptonite to be reviled at best and at worst, ignored. Where’s the line? And how do you walk it?
Here’s something to cut through the cynicism like the sorbet course of a pricey degustation; at the heart of satire is a pure, pathetic, embarrassing and delusional truth. It’s a truth we teach our kids and forget about in adulthood. The belief that we can change the world, even just a bit. I’m an optimist. I don’t think I’d bother with satire otherwise.
Unlike any other theatrical form, audiences are left at the conclusion of a satirical work thinking ‘Yes, but what is it all for? How are we supposed to live?’ That’s a terrific question. When you find the answer, be a dear and let the rest of us know, will you?
See Vivid White at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner from 18 November to 23 December.