Andrew Denton started out in Theatresports and went on to become head-writer for Sydney radio comedian Doug Mulray, but first came to national attention in a 1980s Saturday morning television show on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (the government channel) called Beatbox, which quickly gave way to the more ambitious Blah Blah Blah. Blah Blah Blah was a youth-oriented anti-chat show with a rock-and-roll alternative-comedy feel; it also marked Rampaging Roy Slaven's and H G Nelson's first appearances on television—in silhouette, because they still wanted to keep their faces a mystery at the time. (UK readers may know them from their beer commercials; in Australia they are parodists of the Saturday afternoon sports-announcers par excellence, first on radio and increasingly on TV.)
It wasn't until the much-anticipated sequel to Blah Blah Blah that Denton found his archetype. Ditching the everyday clothes for a tuxedo, he hosted The Money or the Gun, a big-budget (for the ABC) talk-show with James Bond credits and linking sketches throughout, based on a particular topic each week. Today it's best-remembered for its musical interludes: each week a different band would cover 'the best song in the world,' Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway to Heaven'. Rolf Harris's version, recorded for the show, even went on to become a hit in the UK, completely stripped of all context. Denton is probably indirectly responsible for any number of comic cover-versions of rock classics that have plagued us since.
Denton bore an uncanny resemblance to Woody Allen in more ways than one: not just because of his glasses, but in the sharp intelligence behind his jokes. He was a master of the difficult art of making serious points and exploring serious issues in a comedy chat-show setting, often with lashings of 'good bad-taste'. His most memorable feat in this vein was a spontaneous interview with a blind girl in his studio audience, which led to a whole disabled-themed episode of The Money or the Gun.
In all of these early shows, Denton was notable for interviewing not 'stars' but ordinary people—exploring their unusual jobs, their unsung achievements and their everyday challenges. It was a refreshing change in an industry whose chat-shows descended en masse upon any visiting actor or musician and interviewed them to death. Denton, in fact, was doing 'reality TV' ten years before it became fashionable.
He continued this theme in his next show, Live and Sweaty, which focussed on that national obsession, sport. Again, he interviewed the less-well-known sports men and women as well as the better-known; and again, he trod that fine line between homage and taking the piss. With Sweaty he was also responsible for introducing TV audiences to Elle McFeast (Lisbeth Gorr), the boisterous interviewer who started as reporter-in-the-field and then took over the helm after Denton moved on; she has since gone on to achieve television notoriety all of her own, in particular for her light-hearted interview with infamous killer Mark 'Chopper' Read.
By now (circa 1993), Denton was the hottest star in Australian television comedy, and had done pretty much all he could do on the ABC. There were a couple more Money or the Gun specials, including one on Antarctica, but his next series took him to the high-spending world, and much bigger audiences, of commercial television. His talk-show Denton ran for two series of hour-long shows, two nights a week over a six-month run, on the Seven network in 1994 and 1995.
Denton was essential late-night viewing. The subversive style he had developed at the ABC met commercial television head-on, and the results were frequently brilliant, particularly in the first series. The show also gave Australia yet another comedy star: Amanda Keller, who had previously hidden her comic talents under a genetically-enhanced bushel as lead reporter for the gee-whiz-techno-futurism of Beyond 2000.
But over the course of months and months of commercial television, Denton became a victim of the very talk-show culture he had subverted. Seven wanted their big talk-show host to interview big stars, not ordinary folks, and by the second series there was hardly an Aussie in sight, as Denton chatted with an endless procession of American actors. There were classic moments, though: none less than when Denton interviewed Robert Plant and Jimmy Page and asked just what they thought of his treatment of 'Stairway to Heaven'.
Denton's trademark wit never left him, but something was missing, and he knew it. He left Seven after the second series and moved to the world of breakfast radio, where he professes to be much happier.
Triple M's gain was Australia's loss, because half the country has no access to Denton's metropolitan-radio ramblings. Apart from rare sightings on Good News Week (an Australian version of Have I Got News For You) and Geoffrey Robertson's Hypotheticals, and most recently as host of the Logies (Australia's Emmy or BAFTA awards), we don't see him on TV much these days. Which is a shame; no one has quite managed to fill his shoes.
But in the late 1990s he made something of a TV comeback, albeit behind the scenes, when his breakfast show sponsored something called The House From Hell. Denton and fellow-announcer Amanda Keller selected a handful of people, carefully chosen to be as incompatible as possible, and locked them into an ordinary house for three months under television surveillance to see who could last the longest. They would then concoct tricks and tortures to play on the House's inhabitants just to keep the black comedy rolling. Not only was it funny, it was a fascinating exercise in group psychology, and became a big hit first on radio and then on television, where each week's highlights were played out on Channel Ten.
This brilliant idea has, of course, been shamelessly stolen by American television, which has recycled it as Survivor and Big Brother. The latter is closest in format to The House From Hell, but with the comedy elements removed—which, in an odd kind of way, makes it much more disturbing.
And so Andrew Denton, comic genius from that little-known corner of the world called Australia, has indirectly influenced both the UK pop charts and the US ratings. Who says comedy isn't universal?