Pillar of the Australian stand up scene Lawrence Mooney is doing something a little different for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival this year: impersonating Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Listeners of Triple M, viewers of the Project and those who follow Mooney on social media will be familiar with his impression. Mooney’s Turnbull is a delightfully plain speaking, no nonsense political satirist whose anger is second only to his eloquence. Til Knowles spoke to Mooney about going full Turnbull.
Your show this year isn’t just about Malcolm Turnbull – it is Malcolm Turnbull. You’ve been doing this impression since 2014 – why did you decide to do a full show of it this year?
Well, because I’d started to perfect this impersonation and then ended up doing it on Triple M, it started to creep into my standup a bit more. And there was plenty of material presenting itself the whole way through. And the audience started to really enjoy it – there were people who started going along to my standup yelling “Malcolm!”, and all of a sudden Malcolm was starting to leech into my life more and more. And then the Triple M audience start to come and see me live, and they’re yelling “Malcolm!”, and when I start to do the bit of the show where I say “I’ve also got a daytime job, I impersonate the Prime Minister of Australia” the audience would spontaneously applaud.
It was so full on, either leeching its way in or consuming me more and more. And so then I decided well, I’ll see if I can make a whole show about it. So I tried it at the Fringe last year, in two trial shows, and there was plenty of material there, and it certainly held the audience. So I decided to launch into 2018 with a full show, and I’ve just finished a run of 14 shows at the Adelaide Fringe, and we had couple of political guests, mostly sourced from the audience – Jay Weatherill was one of the guests there.
When you say political guests, are they real? Or “political guests” in air quotes?
So the premise of the show is Malcolm’s got his own Tonight show, and on that show there’s a guest. Most of the time that guest will be sourced from the audience, but occasionally it’ll be an organised political guest. So Jay Weatherill, and we had Amanda Rishworth who is the member for Kingston in South Australia. So genuine political guests – but not every night! We had the Founder of the Sex Party, which is now called the Reason party, and Bill Shorten’s doing it in Melbourne. What I’d like to do is try and organise Albo for New South Wales, so we’re working on that, and in Queensland we’re looking at Jackie Trad and a Labor Senator Murray Watt. It’s fun, but we talk about political issues too – issues of the day.
Why do you think that audiences and even politicians are reacting so positively to it? Aside from it being funny, of course – that one’s kind of a given.
Well it is funny, there’s some incisive political commentary there as well. And I think, you know… the interesting thing with the is that people want to love their Prime Minister, regardless of their political stripe. And the Prime Minister they find with me is someone who gives them hope. They’re probably sitting in the audience and thinking “Why doesn’t he just speak like this?” Because our Prime Minister, the one I do, he’s very frank and to the point about people within his party and the situation with Australian policies. And he’s in a system that’s writ large too, so people go “Yeah why doesn’t he speak like that?”
Yeah, “Why isn’t there that much honesty in politics?”
Yeah why they need to, you know, bite down on a stick… And they’re so managed and handled and percentaged.
Is that something – well, this question kinda presupposes that the Australian political system is a bit broken, and there’s a bit of distrust between the people and our politicians at the moment… What do you think could fix that?
Well straight shooting always works pretty well. Bob Hawke was one of the most popular Prime Ministers in Australian history, Prime Minister four eight years, and he didn’t mince words often. I mean there was still political-speak with Bob was well, he would sometimes, you know, massage the truth. But to start off with, a bit more straight shooting. And act like a normal person. The trouble is, with Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull, they are managed by the party – you say what the party tells you to say. And that’s the problem with political parties, until your leader becomes incredibly popular like Paul Keating, and then the party does what he tells them to do, it turns around. But Malcolm’s got a lack of power in the party, he’s got a one seat majority, has to pander to the right wing. So he’s completely hamstrung.
Bit of an obvious question, but have you ever considered running?
They’ve asked me to, and the answer is “no”. [Laughs.] The Labor Party have offered me a seat, and I declined it. I’ve fantasised about being Prime Minister for a long time, and I’m a political gun, get up early, well read in politics. But I’ve made too many mistakes, and I’ve also been outspoken on social media, and now they just trawl all that stuff and constantly feed it back to you. So then the other thing is that people who may otherwise be talented for it just aren’t interested in their lives being ruined by cheap media. A photo could turn up from your student days, on Insta or Snapchat – you’re wearing this particular costume at a fancy dress party, so what do you actually stand for? And you get these trivial stories that are sidelining the actual issues.
And so now you’ve been given the opportunity to be the Prime Minister in a much safer way?
Yeah, the Prime Minister can now say what he wants! So the Labor party say I’m doing a lot of heavy lifting for them, but I think also for a lot of people, making the Prime Minister a bit more palatable too – so maybe I’m helping his popularity.
Maybe you can save him from his thirtieth bad Newspoll!
Well yeah, the thirtieth Newspoll will be interesting to watch. But the fodder I’ve had in the last few weeks – Barnaby, Michaelia Cash – it’s the gift that keeps on giving, that’s for sure.
You’ve been in the industry for a long time, now you’ve just started up this year the Triple M breakfast crew. How’s that balancing with the standup and the impression?
Triple M’s been responsible for bringing Malcolm to life. I’ve been working for Triple M three years, doing the impersonations into each capital city once a week. It’s been a presence on Triple M for those years, this year I’m on the Big Breakfast in Brisbane – still based in Melbourne but I’m in Brisbane one week a month – Malcolm’s still got a presence on each of the stations across Australia, growing popularity in that market. And the Triple M listeners and people who come out the live comedy, it’s been marvelous. I’m giving them Malcolm, people are coming to the show, and Malcolm’s got a life of his own. I’m wondering where it will end, if it ever does.
Maybe you’ll just always have to dedicate half the show to Malcolm…
Maybe I’ll disappear right up Malcolm’s arse. But at the moment it’s a golden goose for me, and I’m quite enjoying it. And, uh, I can stop being Malcolm any time I like! But Australians don’t like change, Australian’s accept the status quo. And once you’re the Prime Minister, after a while they go “Oh he’s the Prime Minister” and incumbency has its power. People are sick of – in 190 days, Malcolm Turnbull will be Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister in eleven years. Isn’t that a bit sad?
Is there a trick to this sort of impression? Yours is spot on.
I think you’ve got to really like the person. I actually quite like Malcolm Turnbull, I’m fascinated by him. You’ve got to want to do it. I connected with him – maybe there’s more Malcolm Turnbull in me than I’d like to admit.
An Evening with Malcolm Turnbull is on at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival from 28 March – 22 April at 6:45pm, and 5:45pm on Sundays (no Monday shows). For tickets, accessibility information and further details, head to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival website.