Nowadays every second young person seems to want to be a stand-up comic, an occupation that perfectly represents the ‘gig’ economy in its precariousness and occasional nature. Anne Pender gives us mini-biographies of seven Australians who succeeded, often spectacularly, in the risky business of being a comic long before the idea of a ‘gig’ economy entered the collective mind. Beginning with Carol Raye, Pender relates, in forty or so pages each, the life stories of Barry Humphries, Noeline Brown, Max Gillies, John Clarke, Tony Sheldon, and Denise Scott – in other words, members of the two cohorts who rode the national theatre and television wave from the 1960s to the recent past.
Pender, a professor of English and Theatre Studies at the University of New England, is the author of One Man Show (2010), a biography of Barry Humphries. The essays in Seven Big Australians, based on in-depth interviews with her subjects and careful research, demonstrate an empathy that makes them quite engrossing. A good part of their charm comes from the details that Pender elicits from her subjects about the upbringing. The men especially suffered. Their lack of interest in sport and ‘manly’ occupations made them outsiders (Humphries’ headmaster farewelled him with the words, ‘I hope you’re not turning pansy’); in some cases their parents regarded them as ‘no-hopers’ (Clarke). Here, the pathos is underlined by photos showing them looking hapless, usually in fancy dress.