*John Doyle (Photo: Supplied)
On the eve of his appearance on Australian Story, Charlotte Biggins talks to comedian John Doyle about “Rampaging Roy Slaven”, storms in a thimble and laughing in the face of COVID-19.
“I couldn’t tell a joke to save myself. I couldn’t write a joke. I just can’t do it.”
So says John Doyle, better known as Roy Slaven, one half of the comedy duo Roy and HG.
It’s a peculiar revelation, both for long-time fans and new listeners alike. Tune into Bludging on the Blindside, their return to ABC Radio, or almost anything from their decades-long career and you’d probably disagree with him.
But for Doyle, comedy is more than just jokes. It’s a mask; a tool with which he can expose the ignorant, the ridiculous, or the serious. And in the age of COVID-19, it’s something that the world – eventually – will need.
“I always enjoyed amusing others but to imagine one could earn money out of it was never thought to be possible.”
Humour, in some form, was part of Doyle’s life from an early age. Talking to him in his Sydney home, I find him surprisingly candid. Facing a challenging home environment with a profoundly autistic younger sister, his family developed a “cruel sort of humour. It made us sort of make fun of others,” he says, “as a way of compensating for the unusual situation we found ourselves in.”
At 10 he was given a tape recorder – which he still has to this day – and started writing radio plays for his friends to perform. “I always enjoyed amusing others but to imagine one could earn money out of it was never thought to be possible.”
His school’s careers adviser suggested social work, fitting and turning, or teaching – a profession that Doyle would occupy for seven years. The role of comedian would come later.
An early influence arrived when director Aarne Neeme invited Doyle to join the Hunter Valley Theatre Company, a professional company based in Newcastle NSW. Though Doyle played a variety of roles, Neeme remembers he always excelled at comedy.
“He wasn’t afraid of being funny,” he tells me. “There was always a sense of him becoming a funny character.”
This was mirrored offstage. Jonathan Biggins, a fellow company member, remembers Doyle as a prankster. “He would wait in the wings with a foam pool noodle,” he recalls, “and when I came offstage [he] would leap out of his hiding place and beat me with it.”
A traumatic memory, perhaps, but one of many that would form a lasting friendship between the two.
It was here that Doyle learnt what would later become the “sustaining force” behind Roy and HG. Neeme had instilled in the actors the philosophy of “ensemble style”.
“The way I understood it,” Doyle explains, “was that you did your level best to make the person you were working with look good. Greig [Pickhaver] (aka HG Nelson) came with that philosophy and I came with that philosophy, so we never blocked each other. We always ran with whatever the other was going with, and we still do.”
Many would recognise this approach in Roy and HG’s work – including Neeme, who believes that one of their greatest assets is their lack of competition. “What I love is that they work off each other,” he says. “That’s part of the joy of watching them – the teamwork.”
Both Doyle and I agree that to discuss all of Roy and HG’s career would take days, so conversation instead turns to the characters’ number one rule: making the trivial serious and the serious trivial. “We’re looking for storms in a thimble,” he says, “the smaller the issue, the greater the passion.”
“When I wear that mask, it gives me license to be an expert on everything. I can shape reality and create a parallel universe that, hopefully, exposes all the things we want to lampoon.”
Surprisingly, the character of Roy emerged not from a long process of development, but simply from the necessity of responding to whatever was lobbed his way. “It’s a fantastic role to play. When I wear that mask, it gives me license to be an expert on everything. I can shape reality and create a parallel universe that, hopefully, exposes all the things we want to lampoon.”
In the early days of Roy and HG, Doyle sought to distance himself from Roy, mindful of what he termed “Garry McDonald syndrome”. He recalls a time he watched a film in which McDonald had a serious role. As soon as he appeared, the audience burst into inappropriate laughter. “Once you’re exposed as whomever, it’s very hard to put that genie back in the bottle.”
This clear demarcation between himself and Roy extends beyond his career and into his intensely guarded private life – something he puts down to an innate personal preference. “Given my preferences, I’d probably never leave the house,” he says simply.
During the 2000 Olympics at the height of Roy and HG’s fame, he admits that he barely went outside – finding the public gaze “very awkward, very uncomfortable”. Even when speaking of brushes with celebrity, like the time Billie Jean King invited him to watch tennis, he’s unfazed. “Things like that can happen,” he shrugs, “it was a nice thing to do.”
Jonathan Biggins acknowledges Doyle’s decision to shun the spotlight. “He’s a very complex person, he’s very private – I don’t think anyone really understands him fully, except his wife”. Biggins recalls a time when he was living in Redfern and someone smashed in the front door to rob the house. Doyle was the person he called to come and help. “If there was ever a crisis,” he says “he would be the first person I would call”.
Talking with Doyle, it’s clear he’s a deep thinker. “He would be very much at home in the Age of Enlightenment,” Biggins notes. Branching out allowed him to fulfil his “naturally inquisitive” nature, carving out a successful career in serious radio presenting, and writing for the stage and screen.
As a host on a mid-afternoon program on ABC’s 2BL, Doyle engaged with some of “the finest minds on the planet” – lured towards subjects he knew nothing about.
“I’ve always enjoyed talking to scientists, and naturalists, and botanists,” he tells me. Plucking an example at random, he speaks of interviewing Brian Schmidt, a Nobel Prize winner who had discovered the universe’s increasing speed of acceleration. “What a great thing to do. How do you start something like that? How do you assemble ideas?”
“If you can, through the prism of humour, shed some light on the human experience that is unfamiliar to people, then that’s a tremendous achievement.”
They’re questions that speak to Doyle’s style of interviewing, which he likens to a drill bit; either wide, to cover the surface, or narrow, to go deep. “I always preferred the narrow drill bit, to eke out as much as you could.”
The same can be said for his more serious work tackling themes of dementia in his play Vere (Faith), or depicting soldiers in a POW camp in his TV miniseries Changi. Each spoke to the kind of writer and person he believes himself to be; “A sort of dour person, drawn to serious subject matter to the point of melancholia.”
One common thread appears through all his work; humour, albeit black humour, reflective of Doyle’s belief that the best way to sell a message is through comedy. “It’s healthy to laugh at things we fear,” he says. “If you can, through the prism of humour, shed some light on the human experience that is unfamiliar to people, then that’s a tremendous achievement.”
So what then, of these current times when despair is rife and there seems very little to laugh about? As entertainers, Roy and HG are in the rare position of still having an audience. For Doyle, it’s an odd time, when his work provides a two-hour respite from twenty-two hours of exhaustive coronavirus talk.
“They’re veterans,” Jonathan Biggins adds, “and in a time of uncertainty, you turn to things you know and trust – them!”
“The whole world is arse up,” Doyle declares, but then admits that he’s still in the phase of wanting more hard information, greater clarity.
He likens it to a wartime mentality. “All shoulders have got to be at the wheel. Often wartime is good for humour, because people want relief. I don’t know if they’re ready for relief yet, but they will be.”
– Charlotte Biggins