It’s a good week to be Barabbas Loins. The Member for Seedoffal, who bears a striking resemblance to the new (part deux) Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, has just re-ascended to his rightful position as “the national leader Australia deserves”.
It’s also a good week to be Mark Humphries and Evan Williams. They are the pair behind Barabbas and the people responsible for delivering the two-minute satirical sketch that ends the ABC’s 7.30 every second Thursday.
“This is a great day,” says Humphries. “You’ve actually caught us at a really good time, because normally we don’t know what we’re going to write until often the day of. But this is one week where we know. Unless something really massive happens…”
Williams jumps in: “You’re going to curse us now. [Former deputy prime minister Michael] McCormack is going to come back.”
Humphries: “If there’s no Barabbas Loins sketch when [this interview] goes to print, then clearly something happened.”
Unfortunately for McCormack, nothing did happen (but Joyce did make a stir in his first week back) and the dead-eyed Barabbas made his comeback - “I’m back in the saddle, but not in a kinky way”.
“We’re just giving the people what they want,” says Humphries of Barabbas. “I don’t want to be endorsing Barnaby Joyce in any sense but, from a comedic standpoint, it’s a plus for us.”
We’re sitting at a table at Rising Sun Workshop in Newtown and Humphries, 35, and Williams, 31, have just been photographed. They are here to talk about their new book, On Politics and Stuff, and while it’s clear Humphries is comfortable with the attention, cycling through a variety of poses during the photo shoot, Williams just about wills himself to disappear, even offering to move out of shot. It’s the perfect summation of their public profile - Williams prefers to stay off camera, while Humphries is the performer.
Williams is keen to point out, though, it’s an equal writing partnership. “People are always saying in a nice, jokey way, ‘So you write all this stuff and he performs it.’ But if some poor person ever went over all the data of every joke we’d ever written, I really think it would add up to 50-50. It’s truly co-written.”
The pair have been mining politicians’ foibles for nearly 10 years now, after first meeting on the ABC’s short-lived satirical series The Roast, where they were hired by the Chaser’s Charles Firth, despite neither having any practical comedy writing experience. Williams was studying music, while Humphries was working at a warehouse and dabbling in public relations.
They soon gravitated towards each other and began working on short videos together. “We just noticed we were laughing at each other’s jokes,” says Humphries. “And at some point we decided, ‘Oh, let’s see if we can just go and make a little something.’ ”
They pumped out short nightly sketches at The Roast, before moving to The Feed at SBS with a “few desperate gaps” in between. It was at The Feed their sketches began to cut through - not just locally with Barabbas but internationally when a sketch about the CNN logo talking about what it was like to be assaulted by Donald Trump picked up a few million views and grabbed the attention of international news sites.
“That’s how sometimes daily news satire can be humbling,” says Williams. “Because that [Trump sketch] went out and it went really well, and then it’s sort of like, OK, make the next one.”
Adds Humphries: “It’s a blessing and a curse. I’m so desperate to be resting on my laurels, I’d love to be resting on laurels. But the flip side of that is, if you did a bad sketch, you know you’re going to do another sketch tomorrow. So already you’re moving on. But now with 7.30, the pressure is a little bit higher, because it’s once a fortnight and it’s one big swing, whereas on SBS we were doing four a week.”
The joke rate is high in all of their sketches, with throwaway lines often caught only in repeat viewings, so it’s no surprise to hear Shaun Micallef is a big influence, as well as US comedian Tina Fey, along with Saturday Night Live comedian Norm Macdonald and US late night host Stephen Colbert.
“Just cramming so many jokes into one thing, that was the goal of what we were doing,” says Williams. “And that’s something Mark has really had influence over me on, you want to lead the very first sentence as a joke, which is not always something cool to do.”
They joined 7.30 in late 2018, scoring the prime piece of TV real estate once occupied by satirists John Clarke and Bryan Dawe, who held their weekly Thursday night spot for 25 years before Clarke died in 2017. If anything, the lack of a daily deadline has sharpened Williams and Humphries’ satire and made it even more ambitious.
Their Greta Thunberg Helpline sketch (“for adults angry at a child”) went viral, with more than 20 million views and a retweet from the teenage climate change activist herself. It skewered not just the climate-denying politicians but every angry Boomer in earshot. Another one targeting outraged Karens (and Darrens) at Bunnings was perfect for our pandemic-weary times, while the India travel ban sketch nailed what the government is truly afraid of (hint: Andrew Bolt disagreeing with them).
Do they ever think politics is beyond satire?
“I’ve thought about that a lot, that question, ‘Is satire dead?’” says Williams. “Those conversations were more active during Trump and QAnon, but I think politicians are always going to be flawed and people are going to want to listen to other people making fun of it.”
It’s also why a character like Barabbas works, because he’s not “as toxic” as some of the One Nation crew, for example. “That can be a bit more unpleasant,” says Humphries.
They write their 7.30 sketches on Wednesday and film on Thursdays with their regular director of photography and editor Chloe Angelo. With such a tight turnaround, things don’t always go smoothly - they’ve been trapped in the ABC carpark and have still been editing sketches as 7.30 goes to air.
“I remember the budget lock up one, running with the card up to the control room,” says Williams. “I think I almost knocked over Annabel Crabb. That’s the part of it that does get a little dicey, but in the end we’re not delivering the latest COVID report, right?”
Adds Humphries: “And then there was one night where we delivered it and then it’s like Bob Hawke has died. And it’s 7.35. OK, OK…”
Their book takes clear aim at the current state of political play - its summation of the recent crop of prime ministers is funny yet depressing, and serves a grim reminder of what happened to Australia’s only female prime minister, Julia Gillard. “If you discount the tsunami of sexism, the threats that she should be thrown in a chaff bag out to sea and the fact that a man stole the role from her midway through her term, it went really well.”
Do either of them have hope for politics?
“I do,” says Williams. “I actually feel a bit of guilt doing what we do but I do think the vast majority of the time, people probably go into politics for the right reasons. If it was just about making money, you could make more money in the private sector, like Malcolm Turnbull did. But I do have faith, what else are you going to do?”
Says Humphries: “I’ve got a fair amount of empathy for politicians. I wouldn’t be able to do it. I wouldn’t have the skin. Well, I don’t know if it’s thick skin or shamelessness, it’s like two sides of the same coin. But I don’t think I’d have skin thick enough to be able to deal with the constant slings and arrows of the job.
“I’m not optimistic, but I’m hopeful. I’m also encouraged by the amount of young people that seem to be engaged in politics, more so than when I was in school. But it does feel like we have a lot of duds at the moment. Since 2013, that was when Clive Palmer came in and suddenly brought in all these really, I’ll generously say, unconventional candidates. That’s when it felt like the wheels fell off.”
If there is one thing they do have hope for - in pure comedy terms, of course - it’s for a Labor government.
“From a satirical standpoint, we’d like to see a change of government,’ says Humphries. “Just so we could do some different types of sketches. I mean, how many more climate change sketches can we do? We’re not party aligned, but we’re open to it.”
Any advice for Anthony Albanese then?
“Step aside for …. ” says Humphries, laughing.
And the punchline? We’ll just have to wait and see.
On Politics and Stuff is released on June 30.