Political impersonators often come across as traders in a low-rent form of satire: pantomime obsessed with mimicking speech and gesture, and little else. I do not wish to use this occasion to ridicule entertainers trying to make a crust, such as ‘John How-Odd’ or the more straightforwardly named ‘Kevin Rudd Impersonator’ (“humour that cuts through quicker than Julia’s dagger!”). Although I do take some enjoyment in noting that both are available for speaking arrangements – now there’s a way to disappoint junior on his birthday party.
I do wish to make it clear, however, that veteran comedian Lawrence Mooney’s hat in this ring – his web series Unofficial Malcolm Turnbull, which of course is based on the sangiovese-sipping Member for Wentworth – is something a little different. Speech and body mimicry are used to grab the viewer’s attention, then quickly substituted for other things. Is this an accurate reflection of Turnbull’s true personality? After all, how much do we really know about him?
Not much, and that is precisely the point. We wish we knew more about the leader of our country, beyond the obvious: that he is frustrated with his political circumstance and unwilling, or unable, to articulate many of the things on his mind. The appealing premise of Unofficial Malcolm Turnbull is that we are watching videos of an unhinged man, saying what he wants and longs to say, and damned be the consequences. And in this weird, speculative way, it feels utterly truthful.
The series, comprising snack-sized episodes of around three minutes apiece, has proven particularly popular on Facebook, where each instalment usually generates somewhere in the vicinity of 35,00 – 80,000 views. The most popular episodes on Facebook are A Message From Malcolm – The Beetrooter (about Barnaby Joyce: “a clown and a fuckwit”), which has chalked up over 301,000 views, and A Message From Malcolm – Speak Like Me (with Turnbull proclaiming his “wonderful vocabulary” and “tremendous syntax”) which has clocked 285,000 views.
Maybe Mooney does go too far, with occasional wild outbursts involving drugs and sex and debauchery. Or maybe this is a virtue. It gives the series a dangerous energy.
Mooney, an exceptional stand-up comedian whose skills are perhaps best exhibited in his live shows (I’ve seen two: 2011’s An Indecisive Bag of Donuts and 2012’s Lawrence in Suburbia, plus lots of bits and pieces, including small sets) quickly moves past basic impersonation skills, into absurd routines and word volleys. Take, for example, a spiel (from A Message from Malcolm – The Marshmellow) that begins as a congratulation speech for newly elected Adelaide premier Steven ‘The Marshmallow’ Marshall, then descends into a kind of flaky rhapsody about two-party politics. Here’s a chunk:
“Let’s face it, it’s a two-party system. It’s rigged. It’s one or the other. It’s blue or red. Ford or Holden. Beatles or Rolling Stones. It’s dogs or cats. Men or women. Palm trees or weeping willows. It’s concrete or lawn. Fire or ice. Wood or wine. Flooring or a roof. Cock or bulls. It’s France or Italy. Rocks or sand. It’s a latte or peppermint tea. Sound or vision. It’s taste or touch. It’s in or out. Up or down. Over. Under. In. Out. Over. Under. Carpet or tiles. It’s van Gogh or Mr Squiggle. And Mr Squiggle is the Labor Party. Puppetry chaos. And van Gogh is the Liberal Party…”
At this point the speech digresses into a rant about how van Gogh went crazy, cut his ear off, shot himself in the head, took three days to die, and when his brother sold his paintings for a fortune, he realised the artist hadn’t made any money. It takes a while for the dialogue-dump to espouse Liberal Party ethos, but Mooney gets there. The rant flows well rhythmically (obviously, it’s better when you hear/watch it) but the reason it’s funny throughout is because it feels truthful. Turnbull likes to sound loquacious. He likes to flex what used to be regarded as a silver tongue, before it became corroded by political Pablum.
It’s easy to condescend to this kind of comedy: to tut-tut it for foul language or ‘going too far’. Maybe Mooney does go too far, with occasional wild outbursts involving drugs and sex and debauchery, clearly more a Lawrence thing than a Malcolm thing. Or maybe this is a virtue. It gives the series a dangerous energy; you’re never sure where the boundaries are. Again this suits his character, fitting into the idea that what we don’t know about Malcolm Turnbull vastly eclipses what we do know.
Perhaps one of Mooney’s inspirations was Kevin Rudd’s famous ‘this fucking language!’ video, that bazooka attack of naked emotion. We hope and long for a similar moment of candidness involving our current Prime Minister. Unofficial Malcolm Turnbull works, because it is a fantasy. Not of some wild, far-out kind, but of simple truthfulness. Given the snack-sized portions of this (thoroughly bingeable) series, I came away craving a longer and more developed form. Then I discovered, by complete coincidence, Mooney is currently performing a 60 minute stage show called An Evening With Malcolm (in Melbourne in April and Sydney in May). John How-Odd, eat your heart out.
An Evening With Malcolm is now playing at the Athenaeum 2, Melbourne until April 22 as part of the Melbourne Comedy Festival
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