Media

Podcasts, writing & the art of funny voices

Despite working extensively in radio and television for three decades, Tony Martin is generally recognised for his most minor roles. "It's weird 'cos most people probably know me from Kath & Kim or my nine-second, wordless appearance in The Castle."

In case you missed it, he plays Bud Tingwell's son and appears briefly at the end of the movie. When he went to the Melbourne Show recently, people recognised him as Sharon's boyfriend in Kath & Kim. "I was wearing a fake beard and I'm only in four episodes," he says, with a laugh. Apparently it's not uncommon for people to yell "pash rash" at him, inspired by one particular scene.

None of his own work has made its way back to his native New Zealand, the place that inspired his choice of lunch venue. Owned by Kiwis, Batch cafe in Balaclava is dotted with NZ paraphernalia, lollies you might find in a dairy (their equivalent of a milkbar) and a hot sauce named Kaitaia Fire, apparently something of an obsession across the ditch. I opt for the quesadilla and he the brisket roll; we both have a glass of Martinborough pinot gris.

Sitting down with him for nearly two hours is a treat; he's funny and quick, with what seems like an encyclopaedic knowledge of comedy and film. Throughout our chat, he regularly leans in and speaks directly to the dictaphone affecting different voices. At one point, he schools me in language differences between Australia and his home country: cue exaggerated Kiwi accent. "A bach [pronounced batch] in New Zealand is a beach house. Where are you going for the weekend? To the bach … in your jandals. Or if it's cold you might have your jersey on."

From the age of 12, Martin was obsessed with silly voices. Growing up, his stepdad was an amateur marlin fisher, so the family spent months at a time at sea. The only available entertainment was the radio, which featured classic comedy shows from the BBC, including The Goon Show and I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again with John Cleese and the cast of The Goodies. "I just listened to those and got addicted to radio, the theatre of the mind."

Between school and finding work at an advertising agency, he worked in an army disposals store.

The main game, however, was amateur theatre, which he did at night for four years. Back then, there was virtually no comedy scene in New Zealand. Martin says it's impossible to explain to anyone in Australia how big John Clarke was in the 1980s. "Every house had a copy of Fred Dagg's Greatest Hits – his first album. Everyone knew every sketch on it off by heart. Clarke couldn't go to the shops without being mobbed. He made a movie called Dagg Day Afternoon. He had to move to Australia because he couldn't get any work done."

He was honoured to host the tribute to the late Clarke at this year's Logies, who he starred with in the movie Crackerjack.

Martin got his start in advertising at the first FM radio station in New Zealand, a job he took in the hope that he would get to do comedy voices. After a few years, he was transferred to Brisbane, although it quickly became apparent that Melbourne is where the real action was, comedy-wise.

Watching the credits of the comedy show Australia You're Standing In It on the ABC, he spied the name Rod Quantock, and promptly rang him to ask about contacts.

He sent the then head of comedy at the ABC Kris Noble a tape of his sketches and although Noble called and told him "this is shithouse" he also offered him a job as a researcher. A complete lack of knowledge about Australian politics and history ("I didn't know what the Dismissal was") didn't dissuade Martin from taking a gig on the best political satire of the time The Gillies Republic and later Rubbery Figures.

There he learnt puppeteering, voices, sound effects editing and editing, which provided invaluable experience. His role involved cutting articles out of the newspaper and putting them into categories for writers. "It was like a homemade version of the internet. They'd say 'what's Bob Hawke been up to?' I'd go to 'H' in my newspaper file and give them all the newspaper articles I'd found."

The appetite for live comedy in Melbourne at that time was huge, with venues all over town hosting stand-up nights. "People forget the biggest thing in Melbourne comedy in the '80s was theatre sports, it was teams of comedians doing games, playing at the Arts Centre in Hamer Hall. People would go along and barrack like at the football."

After Rubbery Figures, he was asked to work as a writer with the D Generation, which evolved into two decades of work on both radio and TV, notably with Mick Molloy. In recent years, Martin directed Upper Middle Bogan and a few episodes of The Librarians with Wayne Hope; he worked on Very Small Business as a cameraman.

He has also turned his hand to writing fiction, recently releasing his first novel, Deadly Kerfuffle. His previous two books mined his personal life for material. Despite changing names, some of his family have taken umbridge at what he revealed – a few have not spoken to him since.

Not surprisingly, given his love of radio, Martin is also mad for a podcast. He is a regular on Ed Kavalee's Team Effort and the Dum Dum Club. "The thing about podcasting is you're just chatting to someone and you're just at someone's house and they might record for two hours, so by the half an hour mark, you've forgotten that they're even recording," he says. "If a journalist was to sit down and go through every episode, they'd find all these amazing stories. It's a really uncensored medium."

No doubt that's a big part of their appeal. "Young people now have a much higher bullshit detector, the old interview format of the '90s just wouldn't cut it, they want to hear that people are being quote authentic or quote honest, whatever that means now," he says. "So the most uncensored and seemingly unedited podcasts are the ones that people like."

He and his girlfriend Sarina Rowell are about to release a podcast called Childproof, which they co-wrote. Originally conceived as a TV sitcom, it's about a couple who don't have kids. Thus far it's been knocked back by the television networks, who have decreed it "too niche".

Rather than put the script in the bottom drawer, Martin staged it at the Fringe Festival. He and Geraldine Quinn performed it over three nights and recorded it with a view to creating a podcast.

The only thing he can liken it to is the series Homecoming, which in turn is rather like an old-school radio play. "If you were writing a sitcom for radio, you would have six characters. The first episode of Childproof has 29 characters, I'm playing a character based on me and [there's] another one based on John Waters. So it's not like a radio series, it's like an audio version of a TV series; it's inviting you to imagine what the TV show would have looked like."

So, what's next? Does he have a plan? "No! I just blunder along from project to project. What I tend to do, is the phrase modus operandi? Is that a word? My MO is I tend to work for a few years and save money and then do my own stuff."

Let's hope it looks a bit like the TV show he conceived for the ABC called A Quiet Word. Locals such as Shaun Micallef and Rob Sitch, as well as overseas names including Bill Bailey, Lily Tomlin, Carrie Fisher, Richard E Grant and Rob Brydon sat down with him and chewed the fat about their profession. "It was just shop talk, there wasn't any talk about you know who you're married to," he says.

Even though the show screened late on a Tuesday night, the Bill Bailey episode got half a million viewers. His approach was to speak to people he knew or whose work he admired. "So I didn't have to pretend I was a fan, didn't have to look up Wikipedia. I'm not a qualified interviewer … I can't do what Andrew Denton does, so the only way I could make it interesting was to be genuinely interested."

Childproof will be released through iTunes in November; Deadly Kerfuffle is out now through Affirm Press.

This article was originally published by The Sydney Morning Herald on 17 November 2017.