If there's one thing Andrea Powell loves more than making people laugh, it's empowering others to do the same. With almost 30 years of experience in the Australian comedy industry, her work has metamorphosed across performance, theatre, radio, television, and education.
Working on productions like Kath & Kim (ABC), The Panel (Ch. 10), Neighbours (Ch. 10), and Get Krack!n (ABC), and performing for the likes of Triple J, Fox FM, 2Day FM, Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) and much more, Andrea knows the creative potential of humour as a career. "If you’re a creative comedian there are so many options to deliver gags, tell your story and promote yourself," she explains, "one creative form can lead to another."
Previously teaching professional screenwriting and performance in screen and media at RMIT University, she now joins Collarts as the Head of Comedy. Catching up with Andrea about her industry, we discuss the honesty, passion and grit that she wants to pass onto the next generation.
Hi Andrea, thanks for chatting with me! Firstly, tell me a little about yourself.
Despite sage advice to the contrary, I’ve spent the last 28 years in the comedy industry as a writer and performer. I started out in comedy clubs and theatres, touring the country, then worked on radio and television. Later I found work as a director, script editor and now educator. I also had a brief affair with the wine industry, a fruitless liaison although I got to keep all the samples.
That sounds so rewarding. When did you realise you wanted to pursue a career in the comedy industry?
I always enjoyed inventing characters and making people laugh but if I had to pinpoint it, it was probably when I was studying Theatre Arts in Perth, back when I wanted to be a serious actor. One of our assignments was called Music Hall, requiring us to perform a Victorian era entertainment.
I chose a romantic song appropriate for a young woman but instead sang it as a deluded old bag who thinks she’s still got it. I didn’t know it at the time but that was the first incarnation of my character Ethel Chop, who would become my bread and butter for many years. I remember the song got a lot of laughs and I have to say, it felt good. The immediacy of live comedy, that relationship with your audience, when it works, it’s electric. And who doesn’t like to laugh? It’s the best!
Pictured right: Andrea as character Ethel Chop. Image supplied.
"Comedy at its best is inclusive and universal."
So how did you end up going down the path of comedy from there?
I was very lucky when I started out to meet a number of wonderful comedians who not only became friends but helped me with advice, direction, script editing and so on. I did a number of character-driven one-woman shows before I ventured into straight stand up. My first stand-up gig was at the Espy Hotel in St Kilda... I was so nervous I was almost sick but it actually went okay. The next one went well too and so did the one after that but the following one bombed. It was terrible and I was filled with shame and self-loathing. This became the pattern a while: a few good gigs followed by a stinker. It’s like that for everyone at first. Comedy—it keeps you on your toes!
Australia has such a rich history of comedy and dramatic arts, especially in Melbourne. How has it inspired you to be the person you are today, and how have you seen it change over the years?
I moved to Melbourne in the mid '90s and discovered comedy was a huge part of the culture. I went to a lot of stand-up and the standard was incredible. When the Melbourne International Comedy Festival opened I couldn’t get enough of that either. To me comedy has always seemed to be the city’s heartbeat, albeit a very blokey one.
Comedy is still a male dominated industry. Things are changing but we have a long way to go. One of the ways in which female comics counteract the inequality we experience is to offer each other great support. I’m incredibly proud of the way each generation of funny ladies, in Melbourne particularly, have each other’s backs. And the Melbourne comedy community as a whole really steps up when someone is suffering or needs help. It can be a wonderful community.
I love that idea. Do you feel comedy is a great way for people to feel connected, even if the vehicle is driving towards more difficult subjects?
Absolutely! Using humour to highlight controversial or difficult themes can really affect change. If people are laughing, they’re open, they’re receptive, they’re more likely to be empathic. A good joke can make tricky subjects a lot more approachable. I mean, look at Harley Breen’s wonderful TV program Taboo. The way he handles the discussions around subjects such as disability, racism and terminal illness is beautifully done. He pokes fun at himself, his audience and his guests. Everyone is included which I think is why it has the potential to change culture and how we treat people and difficult topics. Comedy at its best is inclusive and universal.
Some of the themes I’ve explored as a comedian include ageism, social and gender “norms” and delusion. A lot of my characters are narcissistic weirdos with falsely bloated egos. I’ve always loved dysfunctional characters with a thin grip on reality probably because so many of us walk that fine line. We’re all pretty fragile at the end of the day, doing our best to make it look like everything’s great. Sometimes life is a turd sandwich. Let’s laugh about it!
Andrea and Pete Stone performing as Ethel Chop and Neville O'Grady. Image supplied.
"The Comedy courses offered at Collarts are unique and tailored to the industry... I wish I’d had when I was starting out. It would have saved me a lot of time and heartache."
Totally! With extensive experience in performance, including in television and theatre, your work has taken many forms and tones. How do you describe the different dimensions comedy allows for creativity?
Many comedians combine live performances with podcasts or film a web series, maybe write an e-book. If you’re a creative comedian there are so many options to deliver gags, tell your story and promote yourself. One creative form can lead to another. In the late '90s I wrote a one-woman show called This Is Your Miserable Life which attracted the attention of a Triple J producer who offered me a regular spot on the breakfast show as my character Ethel Chop. It was a different style of joke writing to performing in front of a live audience but I realised if I could make the jocks laugh their listeners were usually along for the ride—and I loved performing on radio because I didn’t have to dress in character.
I performed characters on various radio stations for 13 years, did live appearances for outside broadcasts, filmed sketches and wrote blogs for their online content. It was a great job. In 2007, I was offered a deal with Penguin Publishers to write a book as my alter ego, Ethel Chop, called Strain Your Gherkins. That was yet another style of writing. All of these forms required a different approach to gag writing and like anything I got the hang of it through instinct and practice.
You need to be adaptable because every gig, every audience, every stage is unique. I’ve performed in lovely theatres and TV studios and I’ve also performed out of the back of a ute. You can’t be precious, it’s showbiz and the show must go on.
It's so interesting that you talk about instinct and practice. Like many other creative careers, some people believe you can’t teach comedy, as comedy is subjective. What would you say to those questioning comedy as a career pathway?
Well, I’d say you can’t teach funny bones. You’ve either got them or you haven’t. What you can teach, however, are myriad of writing and performance skills to aid young comedians in becoming stronger performers and writers, and more likely contenders for employment in the industry. What I find exciting is that according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, at least 10 per cent employment growth is predicted in the arts sector over the next five years, and this includes comedic artists and entertainers in particular. It's a very exciting time!
If you’re like me and you just love comedy, telling unique stories and making people laugh is extremely rewarding. The Comedy courses offered at Collarts are unique and tailored to the industry. The college has state of the art equipment, fantastic teachers who are working in comedy and the kind of resources I wish I’d had when I was starting out. It would have saved me a lot of time and heartache.
Left: Andrea for stand-up show, "How Do You Like Your Eggs?"
Right: Andrea with Scott Brennan and Geraldine Hickey in "Lorraine's Hair & Face" for MICF.
"I’m hoping to inspire young people to be brave, believe in their abilities, build confidence through the course and develop their unique comic voice to deliver hilarious stories... uniting people with laughter is pretty magical, it really is. Imagine doing that for the rest of your life."
And what are you hoping to inspire in the next generation, taking on the role of Head of Comedy at Collarts?
I’m hoping to inspire young people to be brave, believe in their abilities, build confidence through the course and develop their unique comic voice to deliver hilarious stories; to push themselves to create something wonderful and wonderfully funny. This might sound daggy but uniting people with laughter is pretty magical, it really is. Imagine doing that for the rest of your life.
What advice would you give to people who are passionate about comedy, but may not feel that they come from the right background or lack the knowledge to get started?
You only have to look at successful comedians in this country to know it doesn’t matter what background you come from. Judith Lucy, Dave Hughes, Hannah Gadsby, Sam Simmons, Dilruk Jayasinha, Anne Edmonds, Nath Valvo, Denise Scott, Celia Pacquola, Lano & Woodley, Geraldine Hickey: all of these amazing comics have come from different backgrounds and educations. None of them knew a damn thing when they started out but they just kept at it. All you need in comedy is passion and grit. And a great sense of humour, of course, for when things fail—which they will. That’s how you learn!