real life

Denise Scott: What happens when you give it your all, and you fail anyway?

Denise Scott is a well-known Australian comedian and author, who has won numerous critics awards for her stand-up shows. She is also a regular on Talkin ’bout Your Generation, Spicks and Specks and The 7 pm Project. Today, Denise has shared with Debrief Daily an extract from her book The Tour. A memoir for anyone who has ever found themselves considering what it is to be successful.

It wasn’t as if all my guilt magically disappeared that day by the roadside outside Townsville, but I did cut myself some slack, told myself I was doing the best I could for my mother and that it was time to stop using her Alzheimer’s, in the same way I had used my kids when they were young, as an excuse to avoid really going for it with my work. I needed to find out if, when I gave it my all, I could have a successful career.

I dreaded what could happen—what if I gave it my all and it turned out, as I’d suspected, that I really was a failure? The answer to that question came almost immediately. Within months of my return from the tour, my career, as they say in the trade, began to take off .

One door opened, and then another, and then another …

Denise Scott's memoir, 'The Tour'.

One door opened onto the stage at the Comedy Theatre, and I got to fulfi l my childhood dream: to stand alone there and perform my own solo show. It was called Number 26. There were people in the audience! A thousand people! And they’d even paid!

If you are to appreciate the following tale it is essential I describe my costume—a large, fluffy white dressing gown. Underneath, I wore a high-cut black leotard and a pair of fishnet stockings, which the audience didn’t see until the big reveal at the end of the show, when I performed a tap dance routine to the ‘131 008, silvertop taxis—why wait?’ jingle. I’ve always been a firm believer in bringing home a show with a leotard—it can distract the audience from the fact that you haven’t got a decent closing joke.

The first time I performed Number 26 at the Comedy Theatre all was going well until my microphone stopped working. It was one of those tiny lapel mikes, the sort newsreaders wear clipped onto their jacket. It was attached by wires to a battery pack that was in turn attached to a belt that I wore under my leotard. When the battery went, not wanting to prematurely reveal the leotard I decided to leave the stage so the stage manager could change it in private.

It wasn’t ideal, but what could I do? I simply told the audience to talk among themselves; I’d be back soon.

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A few minutes later, with a new battery in place, I stepped back onto the stage and continued with the show until the new battery stopped working. Like a brave soldier refusing to leave his mates at a time of crisis, I declared to my audience, ‘I will not leave you again.’ And so I stayed onstage. In the true spirit of showbiz, in order not to reveal the leotard, the poor manager— thankfully a woman—was forced to lie on the floor underneath me and virtually put her hand up my arse in orderto change the battery.

With that mission successfully accomplished, once more I set forth, regaling the audience with stories of life with John and the kids at Number 26, until ten minutes later that battery died.

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This time the stage manager had to admit that never in the history of the theatre had three battery packs died and that there was no other battery to be had, at which point she gave me a handheld microphone—the sort normally used by stand-ups. The problem was, this wasn’t a stand-up show; it was more like a play.

I’m not saying it was Shakespeare, but if you can imagine Juliet on the balcony saying, ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?’ into a handheld mike, you get the idea. Not that I cared how odd it looked; nor did the audience. The important thing was they could hear me, and so on I went, mike in hand, until the battery in the hand¬held died.

For one mike to die was unfortunate. Two was unlucky. Three was unheard of. Four was downright spooky. I wondered if my unbridled excitement about being onstage at the Comedy was causing me to send out electrical frequencies so powerful that any technical equipment I came into contact with exploded under the pressure.

Can success be measured? Image via Facebook.

Mortified, the stage manager once more appeared, with the news that there was no other battery for the handheld. Rightio, then. I had no choice but to work without a micro¬phone, and so I finished the show yelling my guts out. The leotard reveal worked a treat, and the audience seemed to appreciate the fact that they had seen my show as no other audience ever would.

While I was performing at the Comedy I was asked to audition for a new TV show called Winners and Losers, a ‘dramedy’. I had no idea what a dramedy was, but it sounded impressive.

I’d already been called back three times to audition when my agent rang and said they wanted me to do a fourth. I asked him why.

‘Scotty, they’re just not sure if you know …’

‘What?’

‘… that you can act.’

Fair enough. At that stage I certainly had doubts.

This called for unprecedented action. I phoned Alan Brough, a man famous for the musical knowledge and quick wit he displayed every week on the much-loved TV show Spicks and Specks.

‘Alan, I need your help.’

‘What is it?’

‘I need to learn to act.’

‘You can already act, Ms Scott! I’ve seen you tell a comedian how much you loved their show after you’d just finished telling me how much you loathed it. It was a very convincing performance.’

‘Maybe so, but I can’t act at auditions.’

‘Why not?’

‘I guess I’m not used to it. I usually perform as myself, so having to act feels goosey.’

The next day Alan stood opposite me in my kitchen taking me through my paces. Naturally, I was playing the role I was auditioning for, Trish Gross, while Alan took the role of Jenny, my character’s 27-year-old daughter. It was quite a dramatic piece. I had to express anger and disappointment and upset …

‘Eye contact, Scotty, that’s what acting is all about. Eye contact. No matter what, just keep looking at my eyes.’

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It wasn’t easy. Apart from the fact that I’ve always been uncomfortable holding anyone’s gaze, Alan was 6 foot 5 to my 5 foot 2. By the end of the session my neck ached. But it worked. I got the job. To be cast in a TV part in my mid-fifties, while overweight, with irregular teeth, no botox, facial hair issues, warts and sun damage—as far as I was concerned this was a miracle right up there with Lazarus!

And, let me tell you, since then I have become quite the celebrity. I was in a public toilet standing in a long queue and at one point the woman in front of me said, ‘Has anyone ever told you that you look like the actress in that show …?’

That’s the thing about us women in our fifties: we can never remember the name of a person, place, animal or thing, the miracle being that it doesn’t matter—we understand one another perfectly anyway. And so without hesitation I replied to the woman, ‘It is me. I’m Denise Scott, and I’m in Winners and Losers.’

This woman gasped in shock. ‘Oh my God, you even sound like her.’

I said, ‘That’s because I am her. I’m Denise Scott.’

And then she said, ‘You couldn’t possibly be. Denise Scott is much fatter than you.’

"And, let me tell you, since then I have become quite the celebrity." Image via Facebook.

I’m still in the process of deciding whether this was a compliment or an insult.

Getting the Winners and Losers gig was a high point, but I have to say that performing at the Langwarren Ladies Probus Club luncheon eclipsed it. It was a favour for my cousin’s wife Wendy, whose grandma Bernis, in her role as president of the club, had requested me. I didn’t get paid, of course, but Wendy, who kindly drove me to and from the gig, got fifty dollars petrol money.

I will never forget turning into the Probus Club car park to be greeted by seventy-eight-year-old Bernis, arms outstretched, legs wide apart, her president’s medal, as big as a dinner plate, hanging on a ribbon around her neck. ‘Thank God you’ve arrived, girls. I’ve been standing here for over half an hour saving a parking spot for you.’ The fact that the car park was pretty near empty at the time was neither here nor there to a woman like Bernis.

The hall was full of women aged from their mid-fifties to their nineties. Bernis gestured towards an old lady in a wheelchair. ‘Don’t expect any laughs from her. She’s as deaf as a doorpost, and her mind—it’s completely gone, poor thing. Still, she enjoys a day out.’

We had lunch—roast beef and vegetables—and then Bernis introduced me as ‘the greatest little comedian in Australia.’

The gig was going well when out of the blue I experienced a real-life senior moment: I couldn’t for the life of me remember my closing joke. I could remember the set up: ‘I’d like to leave you with a quote from one of the best motivational speak¬ers I have ever heard. He said things like, “Success is …”’

Nothing.

For years I’d finished with the same gag, must have said it a thousand times, but suddenly it was gone. Where there had
once been a punchline was now an eternal expanse of blankness.

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‘Um, success is …’

More nothing.

‘Success is …’

Again, nothing.

I had to confess. ‘I’m really sorry about this, but, well, I always end my routine with the same story, but for some reason I’ve had a total blank. Sorry. Please bear with me. Success is …’

‘Chocolate? Is it something to do with chocolate, Denise?’

I looked at the tiny white-haired lady who’d called out the suggestion. Her eyes sparkled. She was there to help, happy to help, dying to help.

As it turned out, every single woman in that room was there for me. They all understood, they all empathised, they all sympathised, and they were not going to let me down. For one of the first times in my life I truly understood the meaning of the term ‘sisterhood’. I felt all those elderly women carrying me on their shoulders, and there was no way they were going to drop me.

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‘Good suggestion, thank you, but no, it’s not chocolate. Success is …’

‘Having all your own teeth?’

‘Being able to change your radio setting from AM to FM?’

‘Waking up in the morning and realising you haven’t died?’

Those women were riotous. We laughed a lot, but after ten minutes I had to acknowledge defeat and admit I couldn’t remember what the hell success was.

Five minutes later, as I sat with the ladies, chatting and eating dessert—tinned fruit salad and ice-cream—it came to me. ‘I remember! I remember the end of my joke! Success is …’

All the women whooped and cheered as though I were a marathon runner who, after looking like she was never going to make it, had finally arrived in the Olympic stadium. They didn’t care about hearing the end of my joke, because for them there was no greater success than someone forgetting something and then remembering it again.

Bernis stood up and thanked me for coming. She said she’d made a mistake in her introduction, because ‘Denise Scott is not the best comedian in Australia. She is the best comedian in the WORLD!’ Okay, it wasn’t Dave Letterman orStephen Colbert who made this observation, but it was Bernis;and she was the president of the Langwarren Ladies Probus Club, and that was enough to make my heart soar.

For those of you interested, success, according to that motivational speaker, was not about falling down; it was about falling down and getting back up again. And, even though I made a joke of it (and no, I’m not repeating the joke here—if you’re that keen you can come and see me do it live), my awakening led me to agree. No matter what life throws at you, you must never give up. (Unless, in my case, I become allergic to wine, at which point I wouldn’t see the point in living. After all, everyone has their limit.)

This is an edited extract from The Tour by Denise Scott, published by Hardie Grant, RRP $24.95

You can follow Denise on Twitter @_denisescott.

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