Heart and soul: Peter Helliar, pictured with Lisa McCune, is happy with the way It's a Date blends pathos and humour.
Busy? Yes, comedian Peter Helliar is plenty busy right now, preparing for stand-up comedy dates in Sydney, editing the second season of the ABC TV series It’s a Date and flying by the seat of his pants as one of the team on Channel 10’s five-evenings-a-week panel show The Project. But don’t tell him he looks tired.
“It’s a bit of a rant I go on in my show,” Helliar says. “I want people to know that it’s actually quite a rude thing to say – especially if you don’t know me. It’s one thing for my wife to tell me I look tired. But if a complete stranger says it, that’s something else. Part of doing a live show is me putting it out there that it’s not appreciated!”
Helliar could be taking things easier, spending his days in TV studios and editing suites and his evenings on the couch with the family. But tired or not, he’s committed to putting himself in front of a crowd. Even though his stand-up comedy career has been eclipsed by his TV presence of late, Helliar says he still hankers for live comedy.
Direct approach: Peter Helliar hankers for live comedy despite his heavy TV presence of late. Photo: James Penlidis
“People like me and Rove [McManus] and Dave Hughes, we all think of ourselves as stand-ups first and foremost,” Helliar says. “All the other stuff we do is just a result of that. The real job of a comedian is done in the pubs, clubs and theatres across the country. It’s where we cut our teeth and it’s where we get our most honest reaction. I think if I don’t tread the boards every so often, it’s dishonest in some way.”
Helliar’s comedy career is a hybrid beast. Unlike the many comics whose stand-up careers spawned TV gigs, Helliar’s stage and screen profile developed simultaneously. While he was a relative newcomer on the Melbourne circuit, he featured in the community TV shows Under Melbourne Tonight and The Loft Live, hosted by Rove McManus. When Channel 9 grabbed McManus, Helliar went with him as on-air sidekick and writer.
“I’m really proud of that period of my career,” Helliar says. “I could just concentrate on being funny whereas Rove has to move the show along and do all the interviews.”
Comic insight: Fiona O'Loughlin shares her career highs and lows at the Comedy Store, EQ Moore Park, on August 16.
Stints on FM radio and Channel 10’s skitHOUSE followed. In 2010 his first feature film as writer, I Love You Too, was released. Helliar has other screenplays in the drawer at home, he says, but the time isn’t right. “I haven’t shopped them around yet and with The Project and It’s a Date there’s not a lot of time. Right now, my life is split right down the middle.”
Writing narrative and topical comedy for two different outlets is proving easier than Helliar thought, he says. “It’s like they’re completely separate disciplines using different parts of the brain. So in a way it’s easy to move between the two, but it’s been pretty full-on juggling both.”
Working on The Project is about the buzz of immediacy, Helliar says. “Something happens that day and it’s your job to get that gag away. It’s like stand-up – you can be on the spot. It’s quite intoxicating.”
Writing It’s a Date allows Helliar to explore comedy with “pathos and heart”.
“I just love the way people have responded to it,” he says. “It’s the kind of comedy I love. When things get emotional we undercut it with humour, and when things seem funny we can reveal something deeper in that moment. And for a lot of actors in the cast, it’s a chance to do something different. We get the more dramatic actors to play up the comedy and the comics to play it a bit straighter.”
By contrast, Helliar’s stand-up show Totes Grouseballs ("a little bit old-school, a little bit new-school,” he explains) is inspired by the everyday stuff of life. “Everything I talk about has actually happened to me,” he says. A recent close shave with social media notoriety, for example. “I had a close call with a sex-tape scandal,” Helliar chuckles. “It wasn’t actually a tape, it was photo of a bit of fun I was having with my wife. But it nearly turned viral on me.”
What’s with the curly blonde wig in Totes Grouseballs?
“It’s that old school, new school thing again,” he says. “I’ve heard people describe me as looking like Doris Roberts from Everybody Loves Raymond.”
Once Helliar’s Sydney dates are through, he’s going to take things a little easier. A snowfields holiday with the kids, perhaps.
“We take the kids everywhere. We went backpacking around eastern Europe a couple of years ago with them. We caught trains and all that stuff. It was amazing fun but perhaps it’s a bit like childbirth for women in that you forget the pain. All you can remember is the joy at the end of it. I suspect a similar thing has happened to me after travelling with kids for a month with no break.”
COMING UP ON THE COMEDY STAGE
Sydney Comedy Store, Entertainment Quarter, Moore Park, 7pm on August 8-9, $35, www.comedystore.com.au or www.ticketek.com.au
Phil Spencer: You and Whose Army?
Writer and raconteur Spencer relates the true story about growing up in rural Oxfordshire, south-east England, moonlighting as a Glaswegian drug dealer and living 29 years without ever throwing a punch. Ever. Giant Dwarf (199 Cleveland St, Redfern), July 30. $15, giantdwarf.com.au.
In My Brilliant Career, O’Loughlin spills the beans on 15 years in the comedy spotlight. Comedy Store, EQ Moore Park, August 16. $32.50, comedy.com.au.
Now he’s officially “big”, Little ponders his newly acquired quasi-affluence in a show called Middleclass Gangster. Comedy Store, EQ Moore Park, August 23. $30, comedy.com.au.
Triple J host and stand-up Okine takes to the Enmore’s stage to record his second live DVD. Make some noise. Enmore Theatre, September 12. $29.90-$34.90, 9550 3666.
Irish superstar Byrne returns to Sydney and it’s up to his Sydney fans to name his show. Look for the Jason Byrne postcards and posters around town, write your title suggestion in the blank space, and you could find yourself on stage and $1000 better off. Enmore Theatre, September 27. $49.90, 9550 3666.