Rod Quantock, OAM

^^^ Research Associate, Research Unit in Public Cultures, University of Melbourne ^^^ Associate, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne ^^^ Patron of Tandem ^^^ Patron of Ardoch Youth Foundation's Numeracy Program ^^^



Written by Danu Poyner

Sunday, 26 July 2009 

Rod Quantock has achieved something quite extraordinary with his latest show - he's outsourced his job, or at least the stand-up part of it, to the audience.

To understand what this means and why it's so extraordinary, you have to understand Rod Quantock. This is the man responsible for the famous performance Bus, for which he would take a group of people who don’t know where they’re going, to visit people who don’t know they're coming. A simple enough idea, but it took him a long time to work out the reason, which was to introduce unsuspecting people to the idea that the world’s not such a frightening place and you can have fun with strangers.

Rod's latest show is called Bugger The Polar Bears - This Is Serious. "If climate change doesn't scare you shitless," he says, "then you just don't get the science." Explaining the science in his idiosyncratic way, Rod takes pains to demonstrate that today and in the coming days, the world really is a frightening place, but it's also a beautiful place. Rod opens his show (which is really more of a conversation than a show), with a stunning selection of images from space. He observes that just at the point where our tiny, embryonic species has evolved to the point of being able to behold the universe in all its splendour, we've also created the capacity to destroy our place in it. "It's a comic juxtaposition of possibility and disaster," he says.

It's easy to see how Bus delivered a comic juxtaposition of possibility and disaster, too. This juxtaposition is the place from which Rod draws his energy and his comedy, and he's bloody good at it. He wants to make us uncomfortable. The science of climate-change, for all its inherent existential dread, just isn't enough to make people uncomfortable. To make someone truly squirm, all you have to do is ask for a volunteer. And Rod asks for so many volunteers that virtually no-one in the audience is left unscathed.

It's while you watch a bunch of strangers shuffle uncomfortably onto the stage to re-enact the history of the universe, one playing a rather shy big bang, one dancing with forced enthusiasm to symbolise the hedonistic pop culture of today, one an introverted, serious-looking artist doing an impression of a velociraptor... that you realise Rod's true purpose. By demanding participation from the audience and inviting unscripted on-stage disaster, Rod unlocks the possibility in us all. A comic juxtaposition indeed.

As this realisation of sheer possibility dawns, Rod leaves us with an imploration to DO SOMETHING. Nobody has a right to do nothing anymore, he says, and he's right.

To reveal much more would spoil the material and steal the thunder from some of Rod's best lines, but rest assured there is plenty to laugh at here, and even more to take away. You'll learn some great tips for rebuttal when it comes to the deniers and the do-nothings polluting the climate change debate too. After being forced to watch an interview with Steve Fielding on Lateline (a moment which certainly did fill me with existential dread), Rod sums up Fielding and his followers' position well - "he's not an evil, scheming bastard, he's a simpleton!"

Rod says everything you want to say. Everything you want to scream. He's right, but Bugger The Polar Bears - This Is Serious is more than just catharsis for greenies. Much more.

In fact, Rod also has the ultimate solution for dealing with climate change, but you'll have to see the show to find out what that is. Please do.

Liz Porter on Rod Quantock in The Age
August 3, 2008

ASK any group of Australians who Rod Quantock is and you'll get at least three different answers. For some, he's the left-wing comic/activist who campaigned against John Howard and police brutality at S11 and stages comedy shows about water shortage and the world oil crisis. Others know him as the red night-shirted Capt'n Snooze, the wacky ad character who brought the comedian almost two decades of national television exposure. But those who've joined Quantock — and his rubber chicken "Trevor" — on one of his anarchic Bus, Son of Tram trips tend to use phrases such as "absurdist comic genius".

In late 1981, when the "bus" phenomenon began, Quantock had 13 years' experience as a comedian on stage, radio and television. From next Wednesday, he will be celebrating his 40th year as a comedy performer with a five-week run of First Man Standing - Forty Years a Fool. As well as revisiting "bits and pieces" from his comedic cauldron, the show will mark his 60th birthday.

Naked ladies, albeit imaginary ones, changed the course of Rod Quantock's life: they helped to make him spellbindingly funny in his first solo performance, and captured the attention of his future wife.

It was the opening night of the 1969 Melbourne University Architecture Revue and the 20-year-old architecture student was playing the part of a gas stove. Tall and thin, he loped around the stage with his arms raised and his long fingers wiggling and waving as the leaping flames on the stove's front gas ring.

On that ring, he told the audience, was a giant cooking pot, filled to the brim with naked ladies. In fact, imaginary naked ladies were everywhere. They were crowding the stage, climbing the rungs of a ladder. Or they were just standing about, doing whatever naked ladies get up to when they are characters in comedy sketches.

Why? Quantock told his audience he expected that many of them would like to see naked ladies on stage — and would probably prefer them to him.

"The idea was that naked ladies were very hard to come by in those days. And if I got the naked ladies, this is what I would do," he says.

A teenage law student named Mary Kenneally was in the 200-strong audience that night. She was transfixed by Quantock's performance and in awe of his self-confidence. The show ran wildly over time and, by 1am, people with babysitters were leaving. The comic waved them goodbye, thanked them for coming and continued doing his "bird impressions on request" skit.

"She was very impressed by the fact that I had no shame," recalls Quantock. "But I knew it was the babysitters. You don't wave goodbye when it's your fault."

One day the next year, Quantock offered Kenneally his seat in the crowded university cafeteria. The pair began dating, and Kenneally starred in the following year's Architecture Revue. They married in 1972 and, seven years later, set up the Comedy Cafe in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, then the epicentre of a comedy scene that had sprung to life with the opening of Melbourne's first live comedy venue, the Flying Trapeze Cafe.

Amid the hard work and hilarity, they had two daughters — the elder is now a 31-year-old internet video producer and the younger a 22-year-old student. In 1984, Kenneally became a TV star in her own right as "Debbie" from Australia You're Standing In It's "Tim and Debbie": two hilariously nitwitted new-age pseudo-intellectuals who still appear in internet comedy tribute pages.

Sadly, the "naked ladies" sketch will not be resurrected in First Man Standing. Quantock can't remember it — and he lent the tapes made on the opening night to "somebody who moved interstate and left them with their brother and I never saw them again". But the show will contain one sketch from 1969 — a routine that he can recall because it involves an idea rather than specific words.

As is his routine, Quantock has left the precise planning of the evening until three or four nights out from next Wednesday's "preview" night. In the meantime, he has been leafing through bits of paper with notes from old shows — including "Axis of Stupidity", "Howard on Ice" and "The Wonderful World of Ducks".

"A lot of the politics will not pass the test of time," he says.

But there will be politics. John Brumby (whom he describes as "Kennett without the charisma") will come up. And "Philip" Rudd. Quantock always likes to conflate Kevin Rudd with the former Howard government attorney-general Philip Ruddock.

"In time that will become a prophecy," he says.

The comedian has learned from experience that last-minute acts of desperation can produce inspired comic events. His Bus, Son of Tram show, performed hundreds of times in Melbourne and Sydney through the 1980s and '90s, was born after Quantock's exhausted troupe of comedians returned from filming Ratbags in Sydney with three weeks to devise a new Comedy Cafe show.

The title was easy. Tram had been a huge hit for them the year before. "We advertised it, but we were so exhausted we never got around to writing it. With two days to go, we had all these bookings but no show, no costumes."

The idea of a mock tourist bus trip saved the day. It began with Quantock leading busloads of Groucho-masked audience members to the Myer Christmas windows, via a tour of Squizzy Taylor's Carlton. It soon morphed into spontaneous and unannounced visits to police graduations, the Logies, budgerigar judgings, Percy Jones' testimonial dinner, private homes (including Derryn Hinch's), boarding schools and massage parlours.

A highlight was a visit to a formal dinner at the old Airlie police college.

"We went around the back through the kitchen and I told the kitchen staff we were expected. It wasn't their job (to keep us out) because there were so many police around. I went into this dinner and the deputy commissioner, Kel Glare, was in the middle of making a speech. Then this rubber chook pokes around the corner." Quantock asked the first police officer he saw for his name (which was Kevin).

"So we sang Happy Birthday to him, with the deputy commissioner on stage wondering what was going on. And then we left."

Rod Quantock's comedy CV runs to eight pages and includes his own television comedy shows in the '80s, extensive behind-the-camera work on shows including Fast Forward, Lift Off and Backberner, and countless guest stints as a panellist on the ABC's Good News Week. But he can't get a gig on TV these days.

"Who knows why?" he says. "The first thing you think of is age. Comedy is the hook that TV wants for the under-35 market. And these days I tend to be more interested in talking about the world, although I'm under pressure from my wife just to be silly.

"But there'll be a bit of that in the show," he promises.

In his four decades of stand-up, Quantock has survived whole generations of comics. But he prefers to speak only of performers he admires — such as Dave Hughes or Frank Woodley. "I am happy people are working, but there is not a lot that is inspiring."

He also won't name his last behind-camera TV job, a few years ago, but says it was so toxic that he swore off working in commercial television comedy for life.

Mary Kenneally continues to urge her husband to return to the "pure funniness" of his pre-Kennett years. "He is such a warm and funny person," she says. "I'd like more people to see that."

But Kenneally respects her husband's political commitment as an expression of his sense of justice and his need to do what he believes is right — both politically and personally.

First Man Standing opens Wednesday, August 6, at Trades Hall, Carlton,