» Ben interview
A Record Or An Outstanding Ben Endeavour
(by Denise M. Baran-Unland)
(from C&G 149 – April 2008)
Despite the recent success of the Goodies black comedy, "A Record or an OBE," and the "Melbourne Museum Comedy Tour," Australian native and former Melbourne University Arts/Science student Ben McKenzie is a serious actor at heart who has set his sights for challenging, dramatic projects.
"If I had to choose between comedy and acting, it would probably be acting," McKenzie said. "My roots are in acting, but since I've started doing comedy, it's taken over. Acting is a very different type of performance--making a character and becoming that character--and I don't want to lose that. It's very gratifying."
The beauty about "A Record or an OBE," for McKenzie, was the opportunity to write and deliver a dramatic as well as a funny performance based on his favorite British comedy television program, The Goodies.
Although McKenzie does not discount the humor of other popular British comedy shows, he said that many of them are only remembered for their successful sketches. "There are a number of them that are not that good," McKenzie said. "With the Goodies, I'm hard pressed to mention more than two or three episodes that were not good."
McKenzie's inspiration for "A Record or an OBE," originated from the liner notes of the 1997 recording, "Yum Yum—The Very Best of the Goodies." Here Bill Oddie wrote about Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor: "I would really like to thank the other two Goodies, but I really can't. It would have been so much easier without them."
"After reading it, I knew it was probably all in jest," McKenzie said. "But because irony doesn't always work well in print, I got that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach and thought, 'What if that was real?' and decided to explore that."
In creating the half hour show—where he also played the role of Graeme Garden--McKenzie considered a number of points: the serious work that weekly must have gone into writing and performing The Goodies, the relationships that developed as a result of it and the disaster that could have occurred had one member of that team struck out on his own at the height of the comedy trio's popularity.
"It's about the real writers and actors—Tim, Bill and Graeme—real people who deal with real consequences, who have to get on with their lives and make money and be happy and do what they love," McKenzie said. "I wanted to make it an emotionally true story by having them go through something meaningful and yet still make it funny."
Audience reaction to the show varied depending upon where McKenzie performed it. It attracted quite a bit of fans last fall at the Melbourne Fringe Festival, he said, but struggled to do the same this spring at the Adelaide Fringe Festival.
"The first couple of audiences there took it very seriously and did not find it a bit funny," McKenzie said. "But they have a reputation for being a tougher character here. Maybe it's the venue, which is very hot. For 10 days, it was over body temperature."
In addition, there were the show's fans who gave McKenzie far more credit than he deserved. "People came up to me and asked, 'How did you come up with so much detail from 1975?' and I tell them, 'I didn't. I made it all up,'" he said.
"A Record or an OBE," is just one example of McKenzie's knack for combining several contrasting topics and presenting them in an appealing fashion to his audience. He previously did this with his "Man in the Lab Coat," persona and his first comedy theatre, "Shaolin Punk."
Although trained in speech and drama with ASCA and Trinity College London, McKenzie as well developed his ability to write and execute comedy. Merging dry factual material with the droll, he penned and performed the well-received "Listen to the Man in the Lab Coat," "Evolutionary: The Man in the Lab Coat Evolved" and "Science-ology: the Man in the Lab Coat Rocks."
For those whose scientific side is piqued by McKenzie's performances, he even offers on his website, www.labcoatman.com.au , suggested links and reading material for learning more about his favorite topics, as well as specially designed performances for schools and special interest groups.
"I find it very inspiring to think of the things we have through science and I wanted to show people that you don't have to be a scientist to appreciate the wonders of the world and the beauty of the world," McKenzie said. "As a layman, I have the air of research—making sure everything is as accurate as possible—yet still make it funny."
His recent "Melbourne Museum Comedy Tour" also did just that. The show was held after the museum's regular hours with McKenzie and several other comedians playing host and offering hilarious commentaries about the displays.
"It brought science to people on a different level," McKenzie said. "Having other comedians involved was a way of making it a bit more communal and getting some people more famous than I to be involved. It made it more attractive to the audience and it also gave people a bit of variety."
Last year, to provide more opportunities to present his material, McKenzie founded Shaolin Punk, a small, theatre company that will produce, according to www.shaolinpunk.net , "comedy which has a brain, drama which exercises the imagination and fantasy that embraces science."
Even its name illustrates McKenzie's fascination for polarities. "Shaolin" is the name of a Buddhist sect that originated in China almost 1500 years ago and later became the basis for the martial art "Kung Fu" "Punk" applies to a particular genre of rock music and the antiestablishment counterculture that McKenzie said embraced it.
"The idea of those two things coming together really appeals to me. It's a nice juxtaposition," he said. "A lot of today's theatre sets out to do things that shock the audience. It runs counter to what you would expect in theatre and it's not really that much fun to watch."
Although McKenzie is not ruling out writing any more "Man in the Lab Coat," material he is nevertheless is pushing forward and resisting typecasting. "As someone pointed out, I don't want to perpetuate the stereotype of the crazy hair and lab coats," McKenzie said with a chuckle. "I'll have no friends."