Absurdity in the suburbs

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Sam Simmons (right) is the brains behind Problems, a confronting new concept coming to the ABC.AT A pub in Sydney recently, Sam Simmons watched a woman defecate on stage.
Nanjing Night Net

”She put on a Philip Glass track, rolled out a tarpaulin and dakked herself,” says the popular comedian and Triple J presenter. ”The whole audience was going, ‘No, oh no, she’s not actually going to do this.’ And then she started having a shit.”

Simmons bites into his bacon sandwich and continues. ”I also saw Nick Sun, one of our best comedians, perform in that pub. He wanted to point out the racial stereotype that all Asian men have small penises, so he stood behind a curtain and said, ‘You can all come and have a look – but you have to line up and look one at a time.’ So everyone formed this long queue.”

All this talk of defecation and penises as performance art is not merely an aside. ”That stuff is important and it needs to happen,” Simmons says. ”It’s a reversal of the banality we see on television.”

Hence his new sketch show Problems, airing Wednesday nights on ABC1. As the creator and star of the series, Simmons is bringing his brand of absurdist humour to the masses. But don’t be fooled by the term ”sketch comedy” – or the prime-time slot on Aunty.

”The first episode is really f—ing out there,” he says. ”It’s anarchic, subversive and dark. Lazy journalists are going to say, ‘It’s like The Mighty Boosh,’ but it’s nothing like the f—ing Mighty Boosh. That’s what they’ll write, though, because we can’t get our head around absurdism in this country.”

Nothing invigorates Simmons like good comedy.

His eyes flash and his voice gets louder. Problems is his baby, and he’s damned proud of it.

Each episode focuses on a seemingly trivial annoyance: a lost Christmas decoration; favourite childhood foods that don’t taste as good as they used to; looking for ice-cream on a hot day.

”It’s not really about searching for ice-cream, though; it’s about searching for something else,” he says. ”But there’s no Scrubs-style message at the end; no ‘I learnt that I could be a good person’ crap.”

The cast of 10 includes established comics such as Lawrence Mooney and Anthony Morgan, and rising stars Claudia O’Doherty and David Quirk. The show is set in the suburbs (it’s filmed in Melbourne’s Bundoora) but it is not another parody of middle Australia.

”We’re not pointing and laughing at anyone,” Simmons says. ”In fact, we show what the suburbs really look like and the people who really populate them, not just the usual white-bread portrayal.” One thing’s for sure: there will be no ”What’s the deal with …?”-type riffing in front of a microphone.

”Those T-shirt philosophers – those twentysomething dudes standing there telling me how it is – I don’t f—ing care!” he says. ”They know the rhythm of how a joke should go but there’s no risk.

”I don’t know if I’m just an ageist Gen Xer, but where’s the anarchy in Gen Y? They’re so conservative; they don’t say anything risky because they want to get on this or that panel show. It’s just bullshit.”

Needless to say, panel shows hold no appeal. ”Being a talking head is just not my thing,” he says. ”I don’t think I’m educated or smart enough to make comments about Syria. Comics feel it’s their right to be able to do that, but I don’t. There are too many comedians on telly with opinions and it just annoys me.”

Could the play-it-safe mentality be heightened by social media? Many of Simmons’ peers, after all, have been subjected to intense online hate campaigns – often for the mildest of supposed infractions. ”I think we, as Australians, are just bored,” he says emphatically. ”There really is something not right with our culture. We’re boxed into the suburbs, into little f—ing fences, we don’t talk to our neighbours, and we’re all too scared to say the ‘wrong’ thing.”

Born in Melbourne, Simmons spent his childhood in Perth and his teenage years in the Adelaide suburb of Hallett Cove.

”It was a rough area but it was great,” he says. ”Adelaide had the most impact on me. The place where you sprout your pubes is the one you remember the most.”

He adores Melbourne but now lives in Sydney, partly because he believes its creative community is more daring.

”Melbourne is wonderful, but it is up its own art-hole. There are great comedy rooms in both cities, but Sydney is a bit less self-conscious. You’ve got these anarchic kids doing weird shit on stage – literally. That’s f—ing cool, and that’s why I live there.”

Problems starts Wednesday, November 21 at 9pm on ABC1.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.