From stage to page

IT HAS been said that Denise Scott only has to flash her big, expressive eyes and you'll start laughing. It's the same with Judith Lucy and her wry grimaces, Hannah Gadsby and her I-kid-you-not deadpan, or Magda Szubanski and those warm, throaty chuckles. These women might say funny things, but there's also something deep and honest about them.

Humour, after all, is about telling the truth; it is the self-recognition, the sweeping away of artifice, that makes us laugh, and when we laugh, we connect. With women and humour, it is tempting to draw gender lines — perhaps female comedians have more feeling to their work, more depth, more emotional intelligence?

Who knows if that's true; what is evident is the women on the comedy circuit seem to write more memoirs than the blokes, and those books are made up of more than just jokey anecdotes.

Scott, Gadsby, Szubanski and Lucy are all writing or releasing new books at present in which they will reveal themselves in more depth than what we see on stage or screen. While they are all clever, funny and mix their wit with emotional candour, they also address grief, guilt, surprise, regret — all those messy, human factors that punctate their art.

What motivates someone to bare themselves for the laughing pleasure of others? Sociologist Murray Davis writes in his book What's So Funny?: The Comic Conception of Culture and Society that humour provides a back entrance into the innermost chamber of a person, group or society — but that "like some delicate insect under a magnifying glass, [it] will be incinerated when touched by the sunlight over the investigator's shoulder". Whatever humour is, for these four women it isn't about self-aggrandising.

Here is Scott in her bright kitchen — she did the impressive mosaics in the hearth herself — and somewhere towards the end of the interview, she pauses at the suggestion that people love her very much. "Do they?" she asks, with genuine self-doubt.

"I don't really comprehend that at all. Being a person who creates their own work, you don't get a lot of time to dwell on achievements. You are always moving on."

At 57, Scott is, against all odds, at the peak of her career, especially since she landed a starring role in Channel Seven's Winners & Losers. "This is the weird thing," Scott says. "I really pinch myself all the time because it's not going according to history that an ageing female who, you'll find it hard to believe, hasn't had Botox but has put on weight and who's aged normally . . . how can it be that I am getting more work than I have before? And I get offered an acting job? That's all really miraculous for me and I suppose I want to just enjoy it.

"If you can't enjoy this now, when are you going to?"

Scott's book is The Tour and, when interviewed some months ago, she had just finished a draft. She's been at it for two years, during which time it has morphed from fiction to "a genre-busting exercise", to memoir. It's been hard going, but no doubt she has brought to the printed page the warmth and honesty she is known to display in person.

Her first book, All That Happened at Number 26, was much easier to write, Scott says, because it was about her husband, John, the kids (Bonnie and Jordie) and their lives together. "Because I find them really interesting and I am happy with myself as a mother, I found it joyful to write about," she says.

"But [The Tour] is partly about the stuff I don't like and so a lot of it is about my work and where I don't think good about myself. Who wants to know?"

While writing the first draft of the book, Scott grappled with nitty-gritty issues — views of herself, wanting parental approval and sex issues.

"My mum was a very conservative woman and I never recognised that until quite recently," Scott says. "And I have been thinking about how I spent 30 years trying to please her and only her with my work, which was doomed to failure. I would never, ever be able to impress her with my work because she was embarrassed, pained, by the fact that I was a stand-up comic. She just couldn't bear it. It was a crazy, no-win situation.

"It's normal to try and get your parents' approval but I think it affected the way I approached my work. I was quite tame, in a way. It was all because I worried about her and her opinion. I don't think it is crazy to want approval — but it's crazy when you keep going when they can't give it."

Underneath all that, perhaps, is the tendency to self-loathing she talks about — this popular, smart, witty woman who didn't think she could act but who has won new fans with Winners & Losers.

This is borne out in the book, which gets its title from a comedy-festival tour she went on a few years ago — where she "went delusional" and thought she was 24 and "really a bit of a sexy number". "It ends up with me on all fours, vomiting in front of the other comics.

"For me it was — I can't even bear to say it — like an awakening. I came back from that tour — I was 54 — and decided I was just going to love my job instead of forever whipping myself about it. I was tired of living like that," Scott says.

“I loathed myself and I was disappointed that I did. I've always looked at the self-help section and thought, 'Oh yeah, come on people' . . . and then I was going to the self-help section all the time. It felt like it was a real waste of time always being negative. I desperately didn't want to be like that any more.”

And she's not. “The place I was when I started [writing the book] is not the place where I am now,” she says. "Weirdly, I'm not full of self-loathing — I still have a good dose of it, but it's not consuming me."

Still, little wonder she empathises with Magda Szubanski's coming out — the circumstances might be very different, but she instantly comprehended the sorts of feelings that would have caused Szubanski to keep a part of herself out of the spotlight for so long.

Despite it being an open secret, Szubanski's incredibly moving words, delivered on Channel Ten's The Project in February, reminded viewers that to be truly who you are — especially when you are such a public figure, and especially regarding sexuality — is not easy when fear and self-censorship run deep, or when we imagine hostility in the wider word. Apt, then, that Szubanski's book, scheduled for next May, is titled (at the moment) Shedding My Skin.

Like Scott, Szubanski is loved warmly by so many, and especially after her appearance on The Project. The Australian Women's Weekly editor-in-chief Helen McCabe told The Age at the time that Szubanski's authenticity, "her searing honesty and her humour'', had always been her selling point. ''Funny and honest is gold to the Australian public,'' McCabe said.

That's certainly true of Judith Lucy. Anyone who's followed her career or read her first book, The Lucy Family Alphabet, will know she's hardly shy about coming forward with the awkward, plain truths about things, especially herself. As she writes in Alphabet, she began in comedy ''exploiting pretty much every part of my private life for mirth and cash''.

''I really wanted to write about mum and dad as three-dimensional people, I wanted to understand them better, and I wanted to understand my feelings towards them better - and let's face it, I really needed a book advance,'' Lucy said while promoting that book. Her new book, due in October, is called Drink, Smoke, Pass Out and in it, she looks at what she's doing here - all the while wondering how she can do that when she can't even find her keys.

Hannah Gadsby, the youngest of the gang, also writes about family in the book she is working on, but says she is glad a memoir can provide much more depth and nuance than stage performance. Even so, she says it is problematic: ''It's memoir and who the hell do I think I am - I'm only 34. It's too soon, in a sense.''

Still, a lot has happened in that time to her body - it is an alarmingly and famously accident-prone site - so she is planning her book as a sort of anatomy upon which incidents have left their mark, physically and psychically.

''It's a medical history,'' Gadsby says, ''or a look at my body: bones, soft tissue, the gullet, digestive tract. Head. Inside the head. From the benign to the quite dramatic, shaping each story around a coming-of-age process.''

She was, for example, concussed by a magpie about the time she first fell in love with a woman. And the other injuries - hip, knee, feet, ankles, wrist and shoulder are just a few - coincided with various emotional grazes, breakages, wounds, awakenings or therapeutic events.

''I had an epiphany a couple of years ago: I saw myself reflected in a window and I did this thing that I have … always done. I just went, 'Ergh, bad posture, hate my body'. And then I thought, you know, it doesn't make any sense to hate your body. Yet a lot of people - particularly women, but now a lot of men - we are almost taught to dislike our idiosyncrasies in our bodies.''

The hatred of her body stemmed ''not just from being oddly shaped and overweight but it has supplied me with a lot of pain over the years and let me down''. What to do about that? ''I started to treat it better. I eat well, I exercise and it's starting to behave. We are nice to each other now. The better I treat my body, the less other people's opinions of it seem to affect me. After all, it's done a good job - it's been hit by five cars. I'm a solid unit.''

Gadsby, in writing her book, is pleased she has long left behind the self-deprecating material that tinged her early work. ''You know all the jokes about being fat and a little bit different better than anyone else, so you say them before anyone else does,'' she says.

''It's defence: someone attacks you, you move with them and they'll fall over because they're not expecting it. I try not to do such self-deprecating stuff any more.

''I notice a lot of female comedians feel the need to put themselves down. Now I think: 'You know what? That doesn't need to happen.' I'm very careful not to be mean about myself - I'll certainly put my faults on display as faults, but not as me being less than anyone else.''

■Denise Scott's The Tour (Hardie Grant) is published on October 1.

■Judith Lucy's Drink, Smoke, Pass Out (Penguin) is released on October 24.

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