The most dangerous thing I’ve ever done in my career is use a pun. Comedians, we hate puns. Puns are comedy punctuation – they’re good for getting to one place to the next, but they’re kind of devoid of meaning.
In Australia, we have very lax pun control laws. And our puns are usually handed down by our fathers.
My dad’s favourite pun is, “You know, I tried to be a trapeze artist once, but I couldn’t get the hang of it.”
It’s doubly funny, because what you don’t know about my dad is that my dad is quadriplegic, so when he sets it up, you know, it’s “I tried to be a trapeze artist once…” And you can just see people go, Oh, is that why he’s in the wheelchair? But then when he says, “But I couldn’t get the hang of it,” they just laugh out of sheer terror.
It’s amazing stuff to watch – that’s what we call in show business an A-grade pun.
And the reason why I’m telling you this is because wrong jokes and dark humour are how I’ve learned to deal with tragedy my entire life – being facetious is a family trait.
So it was 2008 and I was not the well-established C-grade celebrity that stands before you tonight. I was putting together a fringe festival show at the Melbourne Fringe Festival. Fringe festivals are great places for comedians and artists to try out new work that might not be quite ready for everyone to see. But any time you put on a fringe festival show, you put your heart and your art and your wallet on the line every time. And we were a few days out from opening our show, and we hadn’t sold a ticket.
Now, my show was a musical comedy about a mine disaster in northern Tasmania in a town called Beaconsfield.
In April 2006, in Australia, the Beaconsfield mine disaster was the only story that existed. A mine collapsed, killing one man and trapping two men underground. But I was more interested in what was happening on the surface, above ground at Beaconsfield. The town had a population of about 50, but it grew to 500 overnight, and media and journalists started mining the local people for ratings gold.
Every TV show, every radio station, every magazine and journalist, anyone with a public profile, went to Beaconsfield to be seen to be “doing their part for the miners” (and to do their part for their careers at the same time). It was really weird. One breakfast show had a musical concert in a park next to the mine. The very next day, the rival breakfast show held a very similar musical concert.
I don’t know if you remember, but Bill [Shorten], who was the head of the unions at the time, borrowed a billionaire’s jet and flew to Launceston, just so he could be the face of tragedy. (Incidentally, he did such a great job of being the face of tragedy they made him Labor leader).
Celebrity reporter Richard Carlton got an exclusive interview with the miners’ families, and he actually had a heart attack and died in the middle of a press conference. One of our most famous TV presenters, David Koch, or Kochie, as we call him in Australia, jumped over the media barricades and into the back of an ambulance to score an interview with one of the miners.
It was ridiculous. Watching at home, I was disgusted. I thought this was crazy. A whole bunch of assholes were basically making reality TV out of this tragedy, and it was abhorrent. I thought, I need to write something about this. I need to write about the media exploitation of this disaster.
So I did. In my mind it was like a Robin Hood affair – I thought I was doing a good thing, kind of like robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.
But for me, the pun came first: Beaconsfield: A Musical in A-flat Miner. I know what you’re thinking: grade-A pun. (My dad loved it, so whatever).
So I flew to Beaconsfield, and I spent a week in the mine, interviewing the locals and putting their stories in the show. Fast forward six months, we’re three days out from opening night, and me and the director Luke were standing on the stage. And we hadn’t sold a single ticket.
Theatre is a strong word. It was like the living room of a 200-year old terrace in South Melbourne. And standing on that stage, looking at 30 empty seats, it might as well have been 3,000. I tried everything. I emailed every media outlet in Melbourne, tried to get them to write a story about the show. But no one in Melbourne wanted to touch it, and I was just at my end. I’d flown people from all over Australia to be part of this. I had a great director and a great musical director, people from Sydney and Melbourne were all part of it.
I was thinking, There must be something I can do.
And then I thought, Well, I have one last idea.
So I emailed the Launceston Examiner, the local paper in Beaconsfield. I thought, Maybe someone will read about it in Launceston and pop over from Melbourne for the weekend and check out the play.
A couple of hours later, my phone rang, and it was a reporter from the Launceston Examiner. She was very serious, nonplussed, very professional. She wanted to know all about the show, and she asked if I had time. Standing on that empty stage in Melbourne, I had plenty of time in my schedule to talk to anyone about it.
I was so excited to talk to her about all these jokes I’d written. I was telling her about how Macquarie Bank ran the mine at a loss, and how we wrote this song about Richard Carlton’s death called “The Carlton Cardiac.” We said it was an arresting tune.
And it was really exciting. I was laughing and having a great time. But she wasn’t laughing.
She said, “Are you going to bring it to Beaconsfield?”
And I said, “Yeah, of course.”
I lied. I wasn’t going to.
She hung up, and I went to bed. I woke up about 11 o’clock that night, and my friend Chris was calling me.
“Uh, Dan, just to let you know, I was just listening to Tony Delroy’s ‘What the Papers Say.’ Um. . . you’re going to be on the front page of The Age tomorrow.”
Oh my god, The Age, the most important and prestigious newspaper in Australia (according to people that live in Melbourne). Wow.
I went to bed. The first phone call the next day was at six o’clock in the morning. It was Matt and Joe from Fox FM. They’re your standard Fox FM breakfast crew.
“Tell us about your show. What’s it like? Whoa-ho-ho! Good luck! Zing!”
The next phone call was from Neil Mitchell on 3AW. He’s a shock jock. According to his Wikipedia entry (written by his staff), he’s Melbourne’s most prominent thing.
He just yelled at me for five minutes straight: “You’re the WORST PERSON in the WORLD. How DARE you? Would you write a musical about HITLER?”
I said, “Well, Mel Brooks has already done that.”
“I’m not here to encourage your jokes.”
And I was like, “Well, what are you here for? I don’t really know what’s going on.”
So for about five minutes straight, it was the most abusive phone call I’d ever had. It was insane, and about a million people were listening.
Then, for the next two hours, 20 more phone calls from journalists and radio people all over Australia, just calling me up to tell me what an asshole I was. My email inbox was filling up as well, with lots of emails from people telling me what a jerk I was, and random death threats and stuff like that.
There was one email that stood out, though. It was from Senator Guy Barnett. And the subject just said, “Call me.”
I was like, “Oh, wow. This is important.”
Now, the senator could either want one of two things. He could be just a massive fan of my sketch comedy work and wanted me to emcee his Liberal Party fundraise. (I assume a free chopper would be included in that). Or he was excited that someone was talking about the media hypocrisy of the story. When I called him up, you would be surprised to figure out that it was neither. He was frothing over with rage.
He said, “If you come to Beaconsfield, you’ll be hung, drawn, quartered, and dragged through the streets from the back of an ute.” (I don’t know if that’s still Liberal Party policy. I think they just take your citizenship now – it’s a lot easier).
I was like, wow, incredible. TV shows were calling too, so I had to call a press conference.
I texted the cast and said, “Meet me at the theatre half an hour before for the press conference.”
When I got to the theatre, there were two groups outside the theatre. One, the cast, who couldn’t get inside the theatre because… Two, there were 30 journalists blocking the entrance.
I don’t know who I was scared of most, the cast or the journalists. One of the cast members yelled at me, “Dan, what the fuck have you done?”
The lights went on, the cameras started rolling, the mics got shoved in my face. At that point, I thought, Oh my goodness, if all of you had just bought a ticket, we wouldn’t be in this problem.
They started firing questions at me: “Why did you call the song ‘The Carlton Cardiac’? Isn’t that offensive to the family?”
I was like, “Well, I’m just stating his facts. You know, his name was Richard Carlton. He had a cardiac.”
“You don’t think Beaconsfield: A Musical in A-flat Miner is a little bit bad taste?”
And I said, “Do you have any idea how hard it is to write a musical in a-flat minor? It’s very difficult.”
“Why haven’t you changed the name of the musical?”
“Because Beaconsfield: A Rock Opera would just set expectations far too high.”
“What next? September 11 the sitcom?”
“I’ll think about it.”
I thought I was killing it. I was coming back with jokes, dark jokes, because that’s what I’d always done growing up. But that night, we went back to watch ourselves on TV. It was pretty much impossible to not watch ourselves on TV. We were on every single channel that night.
And I was far from killing it. I was nervous, I was a wreck. I was defensive. I was looking at me, thinking, I hate this guy.
I was the most hated man in Australia that day. I had written a musical about media hysteria that was causing media hysteria. And every question I was asked, I just dug myself into a bigger hole.
The rest of the day was hard. I was emotionally and physically drained. It was exhausting. I was nervous about everything. Suddenly, our little play had a lot more attention on it than we ever dreamed of or wanted. We just needed to sell out a few shows, 30 seats. That night, I got drunk and went to bed, and just prayed it would all blow over. But I woke up to text messages and emails and voicemail messages from my friends supporting me, saying, “Keep your head up.”
One message was from my brother, who at the time was a major in the army. He had 200 people under his command, and he said, “Uh, Dan, just letting you know that I’ve spoken to a few of the boys and they’re quite happy to go around tonight if there’s any problems.”
The Australian army was going to be deployed to protect my thirty-seat theatre? Fantastic! (I politely declined).
And then later that morning, there was one more phone call. I answered.
“Hello, Dan, it’s James Carlton here.” James Carlton is a broadcaster, a journalist who works at Radio National here in Australia, but he’s also the son of the late Richard Carlton, the 60 Minutes reporter who had died of the heart attack.
“Dan, I just want you to know that while the world is angry with you, no one ever spoke to us. The family’s not angry with you. I’m not angry with you. And this kind of hypocrisy that you’re pricking with your art is just the kind of thing Dad would have loved.”
And I can’t explain how that phone call made me feel. It was just magical. For the first time in about 48 hours, I felt okay. We opened the show, we sold out the run, the reviews were absolutely extraordinary – the best I’ve had in my career so far.
But I changed the name of the musical. I changed it to Beaconsfield, the Musical, because puns are devoid of meaning, and they’re just comedy punctuation.
Standing outside the theatre on closing night, drinking a beer, where just four days before I’d been in the wrath of the Australian media, I thought, I will never use my jokes to hurt people again. Unless they truly deserve it.
This story is cross-posted from The Moth’s latest book, All These Wonders, for a special edition of HuffPost UK’s Life Less Ordinary blog series. You can buy the book here and listen to Dan tell his story live here.
Life Less Ordinary is a weekly blog series from HuffPost UK that showcases weird and wonderful life experiences. If you’ve got something extraordinary to share please email firstname.lastname@example.org with LLO in the subject line. To read more from the series, visit our dedicated page.