Ever wished you had a job where you could wrestle with the realities of adulthood in a new country and raise a family yet still curse to your heart’s content and never cut your hair? Tommy Dean is living that dream. Born and bred in Arizona USA, Tommy Dean’s move down under has given him unique perspective on modern Australia the rest of us benignly accept without the same hilariously archaic scrutiny. The popular comedian has gone from strength to strength in his adopted country featuring on popular shows such as Spicks and Specks, Q&A, the Gruen Transfer and Rove Live.
For Tommy Dean, pursuing a career in comedy was a bit of a no-brainer, not really giving up much more than a job at a pizza shop when the shows first started coming in thick-and-fast. He joins a barrage of other exceptionally talented comedians converging on Western Australia for the Sydney Comedy Festival Showcase Tour hitting WA venues in Mandurah, Geraldton and Perth from August 3 to August 5. Tommy Dean chatted to BRAYDEN EDWARDS about how an American views some of the good and bad things about Australia, his unexpected obsession with AFL and why injuring yourself in Bunbury is not an experience he would recommend.
You’ve said you got into comedy by accident. But I mean most of us could say the lives they have now happened due to some unexpected circumstance. Surely there was a time in your life when when you thought to yourself: why don’t I become really really professionally funny? When do you think that moment was?
Well hopefully tomorrow (laughs). It would be great if I finally suddenly found myself to be totally and professionally funny. I don’t know exactly, it was always a bit of a game to me at first. I was only 18 or 19. When I started I was just mucking around getting booked locally but then there was a time about two years in when I was sitting looking at my table with a list of every booking agent that I ever worked with and all the dates and potentially the next six months of work and I thought ‘wait a minute…this appears to be what I’m doing from now on.’
I think a lot of people particularly in a creative or performance career see the time that they quit their regular job as the time they started taking their passion seriously. What were you doing at that time?
Well I got into it so young there was no regular job to leave. I dropped out of college – or should I say just didn’t go back one summer because I had so many gigs on. I was actually delivering pizza in the day and doing gigs at night. The pizza place was owned by this local guy who thought comedy was cool and didn’t mind giving me a week off at a time to go to other states. But eventually I was doing so many shows out of town he was like ‘dude, I can’t give you six weeks off’. And I thought well if I have all this comedy work now maybe I should just do that.
There was a guy who was hero of ours growing up with in Arizona named Mark Cordes who has done quite well for himself. He was a real estate champion. He’s one of the few people I know that cashed in a high-paying job for the low-level angst of stand-up comedy. But for me it was just a day-shift at a pizza shop – it wasn’t that hard a choice for me (laughs).
Compared to other performances like music or theatre the art of comedy certainly has more diminishing returns. You can’t go out and tell a joke over again every night like musician might do with a song for example. Is it exhausting trying to keep your narrative fresh or do you find that part liberating as a performer?
For me that’s what I love about it. Not to sound pretentious or anything but I do come from a “theatrical background” (laughs). I got into performance through basic high school drama department. I love the freedom and I like that you’re reacting to the here and now. However, it is a bit of a misnomer that comics do new material all the time. You’re always reworking and honing your perfect set and there is that drag and you have to let that set go and begin again.
It’s never all-or-nothing. It’s like woodwork. There’s a bit of it that looks really good so you show that part off while you’re hacking away at the other end and everything in bits. Eventually it all looks kind of good but you realise there’s all this other wood over here I haven’t whittled into yet. Even though I might be talking about something new I still have my way of doing it which really is my voice in comedy which is probably the hardest thing to find as a comic. To find the way that you deal with things humorously becomes easier but still never really easy. I don’t know why I’m always using wood as a metaphor though – guess I never had any real hobbies!
You’ve been described as a deep thinker and that your comedy act is as much you trying to express yourself and figure out the world in your own way rather than deliberately trying to make people laugh. Is that actually true or do you just roll with that perception of yourself because it makes you seem more sophisticated?
The philosophy that I swing with in comedy is that you don’t make people laugh. My goal is to share funny not force funny. My job is to tell the audience things that I think are funny and hope that they agree with me.
What is there in particular today that you are finding funny that you want to share with your audience? Where are you drawing that from especially for your new and upcoming shows?
My main line for years has always been my experience in Australia as a bit of a fish out of water here. And family as well. I never expected to have a family and children. So my big transition at the moment is updating that too. I had a lot of jokes in the past about the fun of having young children but the truth of the matter is all my kids are in high school now. Yesterday I was taking my son to basketball practice and he was like ‘you know dad I’m going to be driving in less than a year’. I nearly crashed the car you know? So I’m dealing with my age, time, a lot of philosophy, existential angst seeping into my easy-going world and I don’t quite understand it. In essence a lot of my jokes are still about answering that same question ‘what the fuck is happening in the world?’
What things are ‘creeping into your world’ at the moment as you described? Giving you that angst or fire to draw from when you’re performing?
Looking at the bigger world stage I suppose I don’t understand why there’s so much anger, you know? In the late eighties comedy really blew up in the United States and happened again here in Australia after I moved here in 1992. There was that first big surge in stand-up around 1995. At the time they were supposedly arguing that laughter is the best medicine, that comedy makes the world a better place. I’m not concerned but more confused that at a time when there is seemingly more comedy in the world than any given moment in history we are still railing against some the greatest bulwarks of hatred and intolerance that I’ve ever seen.
From a family point of view I’m trying to teach our kids how to be good people and yet the world seems destined to make everything more evil. I don’t understand what is happening. A guy can’t even share a recipe on the internet without being told he’s a ‘fucking faggot!’ What? The guy’s just trying to make a pizza and there’s so much hatred in these troll comments underneath it! You’ve used the wrong cheese! What the fuck kind of sauce is that, faggot?’
A special kind of sympathy for the pizza makers of the world…
Yeah, but it’s all of it…marriage equality for example…plus I can’t even believe all these flat-earthers are getting a platform now. Where did that come from?
I suppose the internet is giving everyone a platform nowadays. For better or worse…
It feels like it’s only for the worse! I remember on my 21st birthday a bunch of buddies and myself did acid and I’m starting to wonder if we didn’t actually die that night and I’ve just spent the last 30 years trying to come to terms with my death because everything’s so fucking weird.
You touched on before how part of your unique voice as a performer is being an American and being a bit of a fish out of water. Given you’ve lived here for over twenty years now, is there anything about Australia that still perplexes you to this day?
Well let me deal with America first. I find it interesting that America is collapsing under the weight of its own stupidity. I never really expected that. I always knew America had its shortcomings but I thought the weight of cultural prominence would win out. But now I’m not sure what’s left of it that’s worth holding onto. I used to be delighting in the uniqueness of Australia with a slight nostalgia for America and now all these years later my argument seems to be ‘christ, lucky I got out at just the right time’.
But to moving to Australia I’m still surprised by the conservative nature of the place at times. It’s sadly amusing that Germany has legalised gay marriage but Australia still struggles to do the same. The gay mardi gras were one of the first things I ever went to here and I couldn’t believe the open nature of the parade and now 25 years later somehow we’re still arguing about that and also whether Australia should be their own nation or not.
I find it interesting the hold that the Queen for instance still has on this place. I thought they would have woken up to that by now. The fact that they’re still answering America’s calls on the allied front when America is getting all involved in a variety of conflicts when Australia would be better suited staying home. I still find the state of origin a delight though. For all the giant stages in the world Queensland and New South Wales can still get angry at each other over a football game.
Well AFL is pretty popular over here in WA too. What was your impression of that coming here as an American? It’s always something we find difficult to explain to people coming from overseas…
That to me was when I knew that I was in the right place. AFL has always been my secret sport mistress. I’ve actually been an ambassador for the Sydney Swans since 2005. My english teacher at high school in Arizona was a Victorian but I don’t actually know what team he went for – I just remember the big cartoon poster of the MCG with a bunch of famous faces and their hands holding up cartoon Four’N Twenty pies. We had this program on TV called Wide World of Sports and it was all about ‘crazy things other nations did!’ And you’d see two minutes of guys jumping up on each other’s shoulders taking marks, rugby scrums and Brazilian mud wrestling and the like.
When I moved over here to NSW in the early nineties they didn’t show the games live so I would get home from comedy gigs and the only thing worth watching were the delayed broadcasts of the AFL. My first wife – her whole family hated AFL but I quietly fell in love with it. I remember sneaking home at 11 o’clock at night and saying ‘I’ll be in bed soon honey I’ve just got to watch this thing first’.
But when I started dating my current wife she was a member of the Sydney Swans and I specifically remember going to a game with her and nobody was there. I couldn’t sit with her because she had reserved seats and I had general admission and it was raining and I went and stood right on the fence right by the goal posts and watched Paul Kelly dig out balls on hands and knees under packs in the goal square all day. That was when I knew this was the game for me. This is everything men should do if they’re given a field, a ball and some anger. And the ball is alive, the ball is a character, going crazy all the time.
Well I’d love to talk about that all day but to bring it back to your comedy shows…
I can’t help myself. I’ve been a fan and member of the Sydney Swans since 1998 and at the time I vowed, I declared ‘I will never go to the MCG until Sydney are in the Grand Final’. In the early 2000s I thought that might have been a really bad choice because I really wanted to see a game at the MCG. And then 2005 rolls around and what a great time that was. I remember sitting right behind the great Leo Barry mark.
You might not get the best reception bringing that up over in the west here…
Yeah I know but then you guys had 2006 go West Coast’s way at least. I was actually quite lucky I did a gig for Collingwood for their morning breakfast that day so I got to see that game too. My favourite moment was before the game when I was sitting outside the MCG and there were these two buskers – a trombone and a trumpet player and they were gaily playing both fight songs, the Sydney anthem and the West Coast anthem back and forward making everyone quite happy as they walked into the stadium.
Then fast forward four hours as people were walking out I’ll never forget them playing the Sydney song as though it was some kind of funeral dirge and watching all the red and white fans sadly crossing the bridge. It was one of the funniest things I remember seeing. I feel like between all the fierce rivalries between everybody that’s still Australia’s saving grace…a deep sense of humour about it all.
Well you’ve had the chance to encounter that better than most in your line of work and especially being part of this Sydney Comedy Festival Showcase tour. Are there any other acts that you’re touring with for this that make you think ‘I wish I could do that the way they do?’
All of them, all of them! That’s what’s great about the showcase tour is that it’s unlike a normal show where you’re on your own. Instead there’s there’s a ‘grand spread’ of acts to enjoy. There’s so much comedy packed in and it’s all very different. It’s pretty safe to say that at this show you’re bound to find something you love. Even if there are a couple of comics that aren’t your cup of tea there’s going to be some others that smash you in the face.
I’m actually hosting it but then Tony Woods who is the big headliner has this American ferociousness about him that I’ve never had. I’ve always played as the cold, wry and understated one but he’s all about the ferocious attack. But then everyone else on the bill is great as well. It’s also just great to find yourself in these places you never expected to be. As long as I don’t get hurt that is. I remember being in Bunbury once and getting hurt and no one seemed to know where the hospital was.
They did move the hospital a little out of town there I know. How did that happen though?
I fell down the stairs. I just came out of my hotel room and missed the step and went down and thought ‘this is something I should probably get looked at’. But then there’s really nowhere round here to go so I’ll just deal with it until tomorrow! But I’m looking forward to coming over all the same. Western Australia is never anything less than always grand!
Tommy Dean heads to Perth as part of the Sydney Comedy Festival Showcase Tour on the following dates. Be sure to like the X-Press Facebook page and sign up to the newsletter to find out how you can win tickets.
Mandurah Performing Arts Centre – Thursday August 3
Queens Park Theatre Geraldton – Friday August 4
Regal Theatre Subiaco – Saturday August 5