“If there are people that hate me, it sort of means job done,” he says. “Because a joke is funnier when there are people who don’t get it. There’s something delicious about people who don’t get it. And also, you can’t please everyone. A comedian who pleases everyone, probably isn’t a comedian.
“The idea that you can make everybody laugh all the time, means you’re going to be mining some pretty safe territory. It’s the price you have to pay. Of course, I’d like to be liked by everyone, but if you’re going to say something interesting, you’ve just got to accept it.”
To backtrack a little, when we meet, Gleeson is in the middle of a month-long stay in Adelaide, performing at his 15th Fringe festival in the city. It’s the second stop on the comedy festival circuit for the 45-year-old. The first leg was a week of shows in Perth and the Fringe was to be followed by another month in Melbourne and then two nights in Sydney, with one gig at the Opera House. (“I’m doing the Opera House to keep the North Shore happy. The ones who are like, ‘Well I love Hard Quiz, but there’s no parking in Enmore.”) The Melbourne International Comedy Festival has now been cancelled in the wake of advice to help slow the spread of coronavirus.
The night before, he had bounded on to the stage at the Vagabond in the Fringe’s Garden of Unearthly Delights to deliver his new show Lighten Up to a sold-out crowd. Dressed neatly in jeans that look suspiciously ironed and a blue collared shirt, Gleeson races through his set, congratulating the audience on getting into the spirit of the Fringe by choosing an established comedian over an up-and-comer.
And it’s true, he is a safe pair of hands, smoothly controlling his hour-long set as he darts between stories about a neighbour’s penchant for roadkill, his two kids and that infamous Logie win. The crowd loves it and so does Gleeson, who abandons his po-faced Hard Chat persona and chuckles along all the way through.
“You can’t do stand-up just because it’s fun,” he says the next morning. “There has to be a bigger driver, I reckon. And, for me, the thing I really get out of it is I like having ideas, saying them out loud and then hearing people laugh, because that means they agree.
“It’s so satisfying – the instant gratification of a live audience. I could have an idea today, I’ll say it tonight and it’ll get a laugh. It just brings me immense pleasure to share an idea and to hear it get approval of some description. It’s the sharing of ideas, that’s the part that keeps you going back.”
Gleeson has been coming back to live comedy for more than 20 years, swapping his science degree from the University of Sydney for stand-up. When he started out, it was under the guise of a character called Malcolm, where, dressed in a flannelette shirt, tracksuit pants and a disconcertingly real-looking red wig, he poked fun at that university standard – mature-age students. It wasn’t long, however, before he realised dress-ups weren’t for him.
“I did a pub gig in the Oatley Hotel, in Sydney, and it was a Wednesday night and I was getting dressed in the toilet and I thought, ‘This is ridiculous,’” he recalls. “I had this dumb bag that I had all the shit in, and I’d walk out on stage – and I did badly, too – and I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Then I just started doing the same routine without the clothes and it still worked and I’m like, oh god, it was just annoying me from an efficiency perspective.”
Was it frightening being himself on stage?
“It was,” he says. “I remember thinking at the time it was also a bit tactical – if this doesn’t work, I’ll scrap it and make another one until something hits. So when I did it, it was kinda, if they don’t like it, it means they don’t like me. To be honest, I quickly moved beyond that. I’ve never really taken it personally when I don’t do well. It’s probably one of my secret skills.”
What’s the secret?
“I don’t care.”
“I just used to say, ‘It’s a room full of people you don’t know and you’re an arsehole, who cares.’ You’re probably not going to see them again anyway,” he says, laughing. “I always went for more wins than losses. Even in my early days, I was probably chalking up nine good gigs to one bad gig. So that’s enough, and when you start, the highs and lows are like that [he indicates a steady incline with his hand] and then it really flattens out.
“Last night was a great night, but when it finished I was like, ‘That was good, fine.’ But if I’d done a gig like that 20 years ago, I probably would have stayed out until 7 in the morning thinking I was king of the world. You get over it.”
He has steadily controlled his career ever since, following the standard successful trajectory of festivals, sketch shows, radio and more TV. But it’s that control that sets him apart – in an art form where chaos is often mistaken for creativity, Gleeson took the opposite approach, turning dependability into desirability.
“In this industry, there’s a lot of interesting personalities and people can be quite erratic, so I think a long time ago I decided the key to being really good at what you’re doing is being consistent,” he says.
“Probably being consistent is the hardest thing out of everything. People come and see you, they want it to be good and it is good and they’re like, ‘I can depend on this guy.’ That’s why they come back year after year. And consistently funny, not just consistently, you know, perfunctory.”
That control was tested in May last year, when it appeared Gleeson had bitten off more than he could chew – axing himself from Hard Quiz in a bid to win the Gold Logie. It looked like a dicey gamble, but you’ve got to remember Gleeson plays for more wins than losses. And despite drawing the ire of fellow nominees for his merciless campaigning and even upsetting Grant Denyer, for whom Gleeson had run a winning campaign the previous year, he rode it all the way to the finish line.
“I know it’s been confusing for some people, but I still feel very, very proud of it because of the way that I did it,” he says of the win. “And ironically, it has more meaning because of how I did it. Which is weird when you think about it.
“So if I had won it, just for being popular, on its own, there would have been no story. Everyone would have gone, ‘Oh good for you,’ but because of the way that I did it, it’s actually got more meaning than if I’d just been handed it. I did it in a funny way, so as a comedian, that’s win-win.”
Watching Gleeson’s speech now, where he mocked the audience – “just because all of you want it and I’ve got it, don’t get angry with me’ – in between sips of red wine, it still looks uncomfortable. It was a hostile room, where sections of the audience didn’t even bother to clap as he took to the stage. He admits he was only 80 per cent in control that night, when “usually I’m 150 per cent” and for a moment he wondered if he’d ruined his career, but there was one thing he was sure of: he was a winner.
“A lot of the truth has been lost,” he says about the night. “And one is that I gave a long speech and it’s actually one of the shorter ones, history would suggest. Then I went back to the TV Week party, because they get the exclusive, and it was like I’d done a shit on their carpet. So I had to endure half an hour of people who take it seriously, try to work out what had just happened.
“They were all zooming in on ‘Do you regret what you did? Do you want to apologise?’ And I’ve never apologised to anyone – why should I? There’s nothing funny about a comedian apologising, so I was never going to apologise.”
If Gleeson sounds ridiculously arrogant here, I hate to disappoint you, he’s not. It’s just confidence delivered in a very bemused tone. He does, however, admit to one regret: making his wife, Ellie Parker, sit through the evening.
“She loves me and she would like everyone to love me the way she does, but that doesn’t get to happen. She knows what I’m like and I think part of her, she would love it if Australia knew me [the way she does], if the whole room would go, ‘Oh, isn’t he wonderful.’ But I’m playing a different game.”
Australia loves a good tall poppy, does he ever worry about that?
“I keep on reaching down to feel if someone’s sawing away at my shins,” he says, laughing. “It’s gonna happen, I guess, maybe it’ll happen in this article. Maybe this is a take-down piece.”
“I’m not immune to thinking it will end,” he adds. “It does end, it ends for everybody, but my insurance policy against it ending quickly is that I’ve been performing consistently live, and it’s grown so slowly. I can only hope that it’ll shrink at the same rate. If in 10 years time I’m performing to 200 people at the Adelaide Fringe, I’ll still be having fun.”
So we won’t see him on Dancing with the Stars or Survivor any time soon?
“I’ve been offered all those things, and I said no. I’ve been offered Dancing with the Stars years ago and I said no. I was offered I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here and I said no. I got asked to judge The Masked Singer and I said no. I was asked to judge on Australia’s Got Talent, I said no.
“I just don’t want to upset the apple cart – I’m on to this really good thing, Hard Quiz is going really well, it’s a mainstream hit, it’s the dream. If I just popped up on those shows, which to be fair, are the kinds of shows I make fun of, I don’t think an audience would pay money to see me live. I don’t think their irony would cope, it would snap, it’d be, ‘You’ve jumped the shark now.’
“So it’s weird, I won the Gold Logie, and afterwards it was, ‘So what do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Keep everything the same, just the same please, let’s just go back to what we were doing please, it was all good.”
Tom Gleeson performs at the Enmore Theatre on May 16; and the Sydney Opera House on May 17. For full dates, go to tomgleeson.com.au. Hard Quiz airs Wednesdays at 8pm on ABC TV.
Louise is Editor of S and TV Liftout at The Sun-Herald