Aunty Donna thought they were being catfished when they were offered a manager in Los Angeles. The absurdist Melbourne comedy trio had been contacted by a faceless but enthusiastic American industry fan, who was apparently enamoured with their YouTube sketches – even though they were filled with parochial Hey Hey It’s Saturday references and surrealist deconstructions of Australian sunscreen ad campaigns.
But this man was the real deal, and now five years on they’ve made a television show for Netflix, executive produced by The Office’s Ed Helms and Between Two Ferns’ Scott Aukerman.
Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House Of Fun is Mark Samual Bonanno, Broden Kelly and Zachary Ruane’s third attempt at a TV show, after pilots with ABC and Stan (Aunty Donna and Chaperones, respectively) both fizzled, out of fears that they’d be too weird to make any money.
In a Thornbury pub, Kelly lets NME in on his theory why the streaming titan has taken a risk on Aunty Donna: “Netflix is like a family with one kid versus a family with ten kids. If you have ten kids, you don’t mind if one falls off its skateboard and breaks his neck, because you’ve got nine more. I don’t have kids, but I assume that’s what it’s like.”
Premiering today, Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House Of Fun is six episodes of strung-together and loosely thematic sketches set in a (fake) Los Angeles sharehouse that is constantly destroyed and rebuilt – a high-budget, long-form version of their YouTube schtick from the last ten years.
High-profile guests float in and out: Weird Al Yankovic as a vampire, Paul F. Tompkins as a human that Bonanno tries to pass off as a jukebox, Helms as himself, though believing his real name is “Egg”, and Kristen Schaal as a dishwasher who wants equal rights. It’s the kind of beautiful nonsense a self-serious Australian TV channel wouldn’t dream of airing anymore.
Read on for NME’s mildly spoilery chat with Kelly about the struggle of alternative comedy in Australia, their theatre days, and beating the everyday into the ground.
Ed Helms’ production company Pacific Electric Picture Company got the show off the ground, but how involved was Helms?
“I hadn’t met him ever, but we developed with one of his underlings, Mike Falbo. The first place that we pitched was one of the networks, and Falbo said ‘Oh, Ed’s coming today’. Then he just walked in and sat with us. We went into the meeting, and despite having never met us, he said ‘What I love about these guys is they’re this and they’re that, and that’s why I’m working with them’. We were like, ‘Oh wow’. Then he went ‘See ya’, and then left. He showed up at the next meeting, and then did it again.”
There’s a sketch in the first episode where Zach naming the Wi-Fi “poo poo” is considered so hilarious by society that a fake Jerry Seinfeld lauds it as “the funniest ever”. It made me realise Aunty Donna serves an extreme, absurd form of observational comedy, but by taking a banal social observation and beating it into the ground.
“It’s one of our favourite things to do, to be honest – it’s what we do when we’re on planes, places, anywhere. We just run a joke over and over, until you lose the sense of the words and what they mean and why they’re there. And it’s exactly that with that one – someone having a cool Wi-Fi name and how clever they are and just doing that to the point where it’s not even about that anymore.
“We also just have this obsession with Jerry Seinfeld for some reason, I don’t know why.”
As a piss take, or are you Seinfeld fans?
“Yeah I love Seinfeld, but I think it’s more the idea that he’s the biggest and must somehow therefore be the funniest comedian in the world – but also having someone that is clearly not Jerry Seinfeld be Jerry Seinfeld.”
I also particularly liked the sketch in the show when a theatre troupe has without notice “booked” your living room for practice, to deliver anti-capitalism monologues. Is that a call back to your own theatre days?
“That’s just real life. Zach and I were in the same acting class, Mark was in the year below. [Composer] Tom Armstrong and [writer-director] Sam Lingham, who are part of Donna as well, were all at acting school. The reason that Aunty Donna started is ’cause we all realised that acting is not a real job. It is for some people – if you’re not in the top 0.5 per cent of actors that are working, it’s a miserable existence where you’re doing shit play reads with crazy people that are taking advantage of your good valuable time. You’re trying to sell tickets for a show about genocide to your mum and your dad, and the tickets cost $60 and it’s awful and you know it. It’s miserable. That’s exactly what that sketch is.”
Obviously this is the largest budget you’ve ever had – were there any gags that you had been waiting for the money to pull off?
“The whole house was fake. We got to build a fucking studio house and do whatever we wanted with it, and that was just mind-blowing. Our experience up until this point has been shooting in rented houses without permission – that was who we are. And they built this house for us, so we could do whatever we wanted in there – smash through walls, reveal an audience.”
Do you think your struggle to get noticed by the bigger networks in Australia is because alternative comedy doesn’t have as much of a place here?
“Australia is a small place. The bigger networks, they’re in the old structure of making their money by ad space. And it doesn’t make sense to have a show that is so weird and alternative. Australia needs to figure out a way to have alternative voices heard – not just in comedy but in diversity.
“When I was growing up, there was really weird comedy on TV: The Micallef P(r)ogram(me), even Full Frontal [Steve Vizard] and Lano and Woodley. Kath and Kim had this show called Big Girl’s Blouse that was a weird, alternative show. It feels like it’s a bit hard to do that at the moment because the audiences are shrinking and they’re so judgmental.
“But Australia has such an awesome comedic voice and there are so many great comedians here. We need to figure out a way to keep our weird sense of humour being heard, [so] it’s not the same few voices doing panel shows, ’cause that’d suck.”
Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun is now streaming on Netflix