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A Bonza Denise Scott
13 / 09 / 2012
A ‘Bonza Sheila’ is a regular Sheilas section paying tribute to a damn good woman. This month, our very worthy recipient is comedian, author and entertainer Denise Scott. Thanks for being bonza, Denise!
1. Within a week of having a near-fatal car accident (while completely sober) in your 20s, you switched from being a Year 12 English teacher (which you’ve described as “sitting around smoking and discussing William Blake”) to embarking on a career in comedy and entertainment. What was the revelation you had during that week to make such a big change?
As I say in my book, at the point of impact, when the two cars hit, I had what I thought was going to be my last ever thought and this was it: “OH Christ I’m going to die and I’m going to die a fucking teacher”. I felt so disappointed that when not only had I survived, but the person in the oncoming car was also unscathed (the accident had been clearly my fault), I immediately quit my job and began to pursue what I really wanted in life – to be a performer . Teachers sometimes get offended by this story but it’s truly what I did think at the time – the point being it wasn’t that the job was lousy, but the realisation I had wasted my time on Earth doing something I didn’t want to do. That near-death experience made me realise there was no more time to waste – I had to take action and at least try to make my dreams come true.
2. You travelled to Darwin with a children’s theatre project and did your first stand-up comedy gig a bit later in your early 30s. What or who influenced you in encouraging a pursuit into stand-up comedy?
Stand-up comedy was all the rage in Melbourne in the early 80s. Venues such as The Last Laugh, The Flying Trapeze and The Comedy Café were thriving at the time. I joined an all-girl comedy act called The Natural Normans, featuring the late and great Lynda Gibson, Lynne McGranger (Irene from Home and Away), and Sally Anne Upton (currently Mrs Brill in the musical Mary Poppins). It was a drag act where the four of us dressed as men and sang sexist songs about women. We were invited to the world-renowned Edinburgh Comedy Festival, but I had little kids at the time and literally couldn’t afford to take them – let alone pay for childcare once there – and my partner John had to keep working in Australia, so I didn’t go. While the others were away, I decided to give stand-up a go. I thought it would be a good way to combine parenting and working: doing a twenty minute spot on stage… hello? What could be easier?! Of course in reality it was the toughest job ever – a hideous test of mental endurance if ever there was one.
3. Could you appreciate at the time that raising a family with your partner John would become one of the underpinning source materials in years to come?
In those early years of my career, I certainly didn’t appreciate that in years to come, my day-to-day-family life would inspire not only my comedy routines but also the writing of two memoirs (my recent book ‘The Tour’ is due to be released in early October). Until recently, my life was pretty much all about family – looking after my kids and, once they were grown up, looking after my mother who had alzheimers. It was also about my relationship with John – we’ve both had to work hard to keep it together – and trivial things: baking cakes, doing (or rather not doing) household chores, paying bills, shopping, cooking , clearing the table, hanging out clothes, bringing in clothes, walking the dog, etc. Whilst I have genuinely always regarded these aspects of my life as extraordinary and wondrous, I assumed others would find reading about them incredibly dull. Apparently, though, there are those who do enjoy it because people come to my shows and buy my books.
4. You’ve received a swag of comedy awards, your shows now sell out, you’re on a top rating drama show (Channel 7’s Winners and Losers), and you’re a best-selling author. I’ve read that it took you 20 years to enjoy the work you do. It seems like the last ten years you’ve been at the top of your game. How did you come to like the work you do and do you think this approach coincides with your success?
To be honest, I think I enjoy my work now because, for the first time ever, I am free of other responsibilities. My kids were well and truly independent years ago, but around that time my mum was diagnosed with alzheimers. For many years she continued to live in her own home. It was a constant worry – I was forever having to make sure that she was safe; that she ate, had company and was taken care of. Eventually, when we moved her in to a dementia facility, I was very focused on making sure I visited her regularly because (along with my sister) I was her main visitor. I didn’t ever go away for more than a few days at a time. My mum passed away last year and whilst I miss her greatly, the truth is that not having to care for her anymore meant that for the first time in my career I have really felt guilt-free about giving work my all, and t’s been a really positive experience! I don’t take one second of it for granted.
5. You have two very creative grown-up children – your daughter Bonnie is an artist and your son Jordie Lane a successful musician. One of your previous comedy shows advised other parents on how to ‘empty the nest’ (one set of advice was not buying children double beds). Have your children finally and properly left the nest and if so, what have been the pros and cons with reclaiming home space with your partner?
Oh at last John and I can walk around in the nude! My kids have left home but being freelance artists that travel the world (my daughter is currently living in LA with her husband who is also an artist), they still use our home as their Melbourne base camp. But most of the time it’s just me and John and the dog at home and we love it. John and I were initially nervous at the prospect, because in our thirty-one years together we had never lived in a place with just the two of us… until now! It’s great. We both cook, clean, garden, drink wine, walk the dog… it’s pretty chilled and pretty darn blissful.
6. As mentioned, your son Jordie Lane has a successful, burgeoning music career. What advice have you given in having a life in the spotlight?
Never google your own name, always remember to ask people about themselves and their lives and, even more importantly, always LISTEN to their answers. There’s nothing more boring than a self-absorbed, up-themselves artist who assumes they’re more important and interesting than anyone else.
7. Your best-selling book ‘All That Happened at Number 26’ was a very personal account of your life in Thornbury, disclosing some family secrets which were even secret to your children prior to publication. I believe one of your greatest strengths is your unbridled honesty – the courage you have in being so honest with your audience. How do you balance what’s private and what can be made public? How have you negotiated this with your family?
It’s very tricky trying to balance this public/private storytelling business. My aim is never to embarrass or take revenge on anyone in my stories – it’s always about celebrating day-to-day life. But I have got it wrong at times and inadvertently revealed something that has caused real upset – not with my immediate family but another relative – and I felt poorly about it, that’s for sure. With ‘All That Happened at Number 26’, I ran everything past John and the kids before it went to print. Of course, now that my kids are adults, their personal lives are absolutely off limits, but luckily for me I still have John – he adores me talking about him. He loves the attention!
8. Any plans to marry your partner John of around 30 years?
As the saying goes: “Never say never”.
9. Is it true he was a “house husband” while you were embarking on your career? How radical was that notion 20 or 30 years ago?
In theory, John was a house husband over 20 years ago, but in practice he saw this as a great opportunity to set up a children’s community circus which consequently became bigger than Ben Hur. So as it turned out, I was working, earning the income and having to do most of the housework/childminding because John was busy giving the gift of stilt walking, plate spinning and juggling to all the kids in our neighbourhood.
10. I read a quote of yours that “often the world of comedy is misogynist”. What has kept you sane in such an environment? Any tips for young female comedians starting off?
As I often say to myself : “I’m not going to let this fucker (comedy) beat me”. I have, at times, found it misogynist, but more often I simply found it hard. When it comes to writing jokes, I’m no natural – that’s for sure. When it comes to self-loathing, however, if I say so myself, I’m a genius. And so I keep going because, believe it or not, I’m still striving to really succeed at it.
11. Who would be your ideal dinner party guests – anyone from history, alive or dead?
Germaine Greer, Clint Eastwood (and that chair of course) , Michelle Obama, Barak Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Dr Phil and Jerry Hall (I’d love to get her spin on what life with Mick was really like).
12. Nominate a woman who inspires you and why?
Julia Gillard. She’s strong and has managed to stand firm amidst hideous, insulting behaviour.
13. What’s your secret to achieving a work / life / family balance?
A good bottle of red wine.
14. If you could talk to your 20-year-old self, what advice would you give?
Don’t sit around waiting for life to come to you because it never will. Get up off the couch and make something happen yourself.
15. If you were Prime Minister for a day, what would you do?
I’d overhaul the aged care system and make music, yoga, massage, pets, dancing, singing, good wine and excellent food mandatory in every single aged care facility.
16. Describe one of the most difficult things you’ve faced and what has helped you get through it.
Dealing with caring for my mother when she had alzheimers was a nightmare. Trying to navigate through the maze of information about the disease, options for her care, dealing with ignorance, finding a home for her, and then dealing with wonderful staff and not so wonderful staff. Without a doubt, a sense of humour gets you through anything – and, of course, a bottle of red!
Thank you, Denise Scott. Keep an eye out for Denise’s new book ‘The Tour’, scheduled for release this October.
Denise Scott is a stand-up comedian, author and entertainer. She’s won a swag of comedy accolades, including a Helpmann Award for ‘Best Comedy Performer’. She’s a regular on Australian television – on ABC TV’s ‘Spicks and Specks’, and as an actor on Channel Seven’s ‘Winners and Losers’. She’s also a bestselling author, with her second book ‘The Tour’ due out this October.