Saluting Garry McDonald's comedy icon
BY DAN ILIC
Norman Gunston was a gutsy creation that pushed comedy and anti-comedy into the mainstream on Australian TV, and paved the way for so many to come after. The Norman Gunston Show debuted on ABC TV on 18 May 1975.
A Pure Comedy Character
Australians over the age of 35 would know Norman Gunston. For a period on the box, Gunston was television. And in the 80s, when I was growing up in the suburbs, television was Australian culture.
Norman Gunston, the character, was the antithesis of a TV host: panicked, seemingly underprepared, unprofessional, naive, nerdy, sexually repressed and famously bleeding from cutting himself shaving.
Norman Gunston was like giving a 12-year-old Catholic schoolboy his own TV show. Well, as someone who used to be a 12-year-old Catholic school boy, I genuflect to the genius of Garry McDonald. Norman is a pure comedy character, designed meticulously to undercut everything around him, and prick the balloon of importance and elevate what was real.
How was this hilarious simpleton allowed on telly?
The character got its start as a minor player on The Aunty Jack Show (1972–73). Gunston was a hapless parochial TV reporter from Wollongong, an industrial city on NSW’s southern coal coast, the region being the butt of many of his jokes.
But soon Gunston was hosting his own delicious subversive satirical version of a Tonight Show, called The Norman Gunston Show (1975–76, 1978–79, 1993).
In the early episodes, you can see a fledgling character finding his feet. The big jump from sketch slot to hosting an entire variety show is hard work. That’s a lot of pressure on Garry McDonald and his team, with only special guests as foils for Norman to play up against. There wasn’t an ensemble, and there weren't teams of people cooking, renovating or building models. It was Gunston, a few packages, and a TV studio set. It was loose, and strange, but Gunston also brought clarity to TV audiences about the world around them.
The artifice of television has a way of obfuscating reality, even when it’s designed to highlight it. Reality TV shows are anything but real. But when you see Norman Gunston in the 'real world', the audience is taken to a place through his eyes. Gunston’s blunt and naive line of questioning tore away any facade of grandiose distortion of a constructed media world. Gunston, for all intents and purposes, was the audience. He called bullshit, and was always on the audience’s side.
Garry’s commitment to his character’s naivety was probably why some people didn’t know if it was indeed a joke. In this short interview clip with Peter Luck, McDonald explains some of the extreme reactions the character provoked from the public:
Celebrity Interviews: From the Sublime to the Absurd
The average bloke in extraordinary circumstances paid dividends for comedy.
The game of playing the naive reporter was at its best when he was in front of phenomenally powerful people. When Gunston was in press conferences, the reverence that other journalists allowed him was incredible, giving ample space for Norman Gunston to get a run of jokes as quickly as possible to a visiting dignitary or celebrity.
Chevy Chase, Guns N' Roses, Paul and Linda McCartney, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm Fraser and Keith Moon are some of the highlights you can see scattered across the internet today. They still hold up, they’re still funny, they’re still every bit as subversive, silly and innocent as they were when they were broadcast.
Gunston was also an endearing celebration of television as an artform. He had a long-running joke about aspiring for a Logie in almost every episode. Remind anyone of Tom Gleeson? He had me laughing my head off as he explained to Sally Struthers, who had just won an Emmy, what a Logie was: 'It’s the biggest thing to happen to you in Australia, or maybe the world; it’s television’s answer to the Nobel Prize'. Sally, to her credit, was steamrolled by Gunston’s Logie bit. 'It’s terrible', she blurted out laughing, 'it sounds like a disease!'.
Celebrities who could play along with Gunston and managed to keep the ball in the air with their own jokes could find themselves in an improvised sketch that went on a journey to the sublime and absurd, just as in this clip with Mick Jagger:
It’s Garry McDonald’s ability to think on his feet, be present in character and really listen to the world around him that got him some of the best results. Backstage at the Grammys, in this clip Gunston ambushes one of the Bee Gees. Then, if that wasn’t enough, gradually all the Bee Gees surround him, where he manages to get 6 or 7 jokes away straight to the band. The jokes are the only things you can hear, but that’s all that matters; somehow seeing Gunston elated backstage is almost enough to carry the whole piece. That’s the joke – this kid from Wollongong is at the Grammys:
Bamboozling the CIA
On 11 November 1975, Garry McDonald’s producer called him out of the blue and told him to drop everything and get to Canberra, because they had a feeling that Gough Whitlam would be dismissed as prime minister.
And so Garry McDonald and his crew hightailed from the ABC in Gore Hill, Sydney to Canberra to arrive at a rally of Labor party faithful out the front of Parliament House. This is arguably the most important moment in the failure of the young Australian democracy. Gunston is at his best, making something out of nothing. Only having the world around him to play with, and his character to rely on, made what many people say is the only reliable record of that day. If you’ve ever seen footage from that day, you’ve seen Gunston's footage.
Ray Martin recounted this incredible story about that day on my podcast. According to ABC Archivist Wendy Borchers and journalist Tim Bowden’s book about the 50th anniversary of the ABC (Aunty's Jubilee!, 2006), the 3 ABC TV newsreels of Gough on the steps of Parliament House making his infamous speech ('Well may we say God Save The Queen, because nothing will save the Governor-General') went missing.
But not just at the ABC. The newsrooms at Nine and Seven also had missing reels from that day. Some suggest it was the CIA, others like Ray Martin blame Gunston.
Because there was one reporter at the momentous event who wasn’t allowed in a real newsroom. He was in the entertainment department – Norman Gunston.
The Little Aussie Bleeder bamboozled the CIA.
Norman Gunston led the way for Australian TV comedians to come and play in the space of anti-TV anti-comedy: Andrew Denton, Elle McFeast, Brad Blanks, Roy and HG, The Chaser, Tom Gleeson and Hard Quiz, Rebel Wilson and Shaun Micallef.
As TV still takes itself so very seriously today, I can’t wait for the next Norman Gunston to come along and make their mark. There’s plenty of talent raring to go: Aaron Chen, Vidya Rajan, Jenna Owen, Steen Raskopoulos, Susie Youseff and Laura Hughes are just some with shoulders strong enough to carry a show that challenges what we all think TV should be.
Investigative humorist Dan Ilic is a TV producer, writer, performer and director. He is also the host of the comedy podcast A Rational Fear.
Main image: The Norman Gunston Show, 1993. Courtesy: Seven Network. NFSA: 69083