When it comes to comedy, there isn't anywhere Wil won't go. He is one of Australia's best-known stand-up comedians, has been host of the ABC's The Glass House and The Gruen Transfer, co-hosted Triple M's radio show Wil and Lehmo, and was a weekly newspaper columnist. Wil is currently touring the country with his Wilful Misconduct tour. He spoke with Career FAQs in late 2008 about life as a comedian, columnist and radio host.
I think I first wanted to do it when I was about 14. I grew up in the country and there were two shows on the ABC that I really liked. The Big Gig was a variety comedy show produced by a guy called Ted Robertson and The Money or the Gun was hosted by Andrew Denton. These shows made me really interested in comedy, but I didn't know it was something you could do as a job – particularly for a kid who grew up on the same road his dad was born on.
At high school, my careers teacher told me I should be a high school careers teacher. That was quite an awkward conversation – I didn't want to say 'I'd rather kill myself' because that would kind of invalidate their entire existence. I told one of my teachers that I would like to do comedy and she said to me 'you're not funny and you're never going to be funny.'
I ended up doing journalism at university because it seemed like a good way to still be involved with writing and, unlike comedy, it also seemed like something you could actually do as a job. I did that for three years and absolutely hated every minute of it. I was very successful at it – I graduated first in my course, but none of that success had brought me any happiness so I thought maybe I should do something that made me happy, whether I was successful at it or not.
I think your first gig is one of those things that lives with you forever. I'd struggle to tell you what I did at a gig last week, but I remember my first gig which happened 13 years ago. It was great, although I'm not sure why because if I did those jokes today I'd probably be booed off stage. When you first start doing comedy, if you knew how shit you were you'd never do it, but there's this confidence, excitement and adrenalin you have and people don't necessarily have high expectations. My second gig was awful, nightmarish. I thought maybe that was it, but I decided to do one more so I would at least have a point's decision one way or the other. It went OK and 13 years later I can't do anything else.
I guess it was about the third year. The first year I did stand up I made $4000, and the second year I made $6000. I was making less than the dole so it wasn't a glorious existence at that point. I was lucky that I had a little bit of money saved from when I worked as a journalist and a car which I sold so I could continue to do comedy, pay my rent and eat. I never saw a movie that wasn't on a Tuesday, ate a lot of two-minute noodles and drank a lot of cheap wine, but I don't think I've ever had more fun. It was so exciting because my world was full of possibility. One thing I've learned in life is that the idea of something is usually better than the reality of it. A lot of comedy is boring and time consuming, and it's like a normal job most of the time.
Let's just look at today. I was up at 6 am because I had to write my column, so I did that until nine. I've got press from 10 to 11.30 am, then I have a radio meeting where we plan our radio show and then we record our forward sell for the show this afternoon. Today I've got another press call at 12.30 pm, from 1 to 4 pm we put the show together and then from 4 to 6 pm we do the show. When I go home, I'll prepare for a debate I have tomorrow night with Joe Hockey and Adam Spencer. Then I have to do a little bit of work on my stand-up show because I've got trial shows this week for my tour. I'll do that until about 11 pm and then I'll press repeat for the next day. On average I do 15-hour days.
I don't really get much of a life outside my career. It's lucky that I love my work – it's not like I'm working down a coalmine or in a sweatshop making Nikes for 16 hours a day. I have a lot to fit in. Stand-up comedy, the newspaper column, the radio show and television work could all be full-time jobs on their own. Doing the little things like paying the bills can be the hardest things to do.
You can drink at work! I like entertaining people, I get to say what I think and I'm in control of my own work.
Constantly, and that's why you need to keep working at it. There's no 'ideas shop' and if you wait for ideas to come to you then you can't sustain filling two hours of national radio a day. I've learnt how to come up with stuff and I'm constantly on the lookout. It's like having a university assignment due at the end of the year – even when you are not working on it you are thinking about it. When I'm watching a movie or listening to the radio, my brain is ticking over ideas. I'm like one of those old guys at the beach with a metal detector, running it over the top of everything to see if there is any gold buried.
Don't do it. I'm old and I don't need the competition from young ambitious people. I quite like my job. Seriously, the thing that I would say is if you want to do comedy because you genuinely want to entertain people, then it's the most rewarding job you will ever have in your entire life. If you want to get into comedy because you want to make money or be famous, there are heaps easier ways to do that. Go on Big Brother. It's a really hard job and it consumes your life. Entertainers work while other people play so essentially what you are saying is you will never go to another birthday party or mate's wedding because those things happen on Saturday night, and on Saturday night you should be performing.
Hopefully to be able to tell jokes for a living for the rest of my life. I always try to choose things which are interesting and to work with people who I like. Ted Robertson, who produced The Big Gig, produced The Glass House so I got to work with the guy who inspired me to get into comedy. And Andrew Denton, who hosted The Money or the Gun and is the producer of The Gruen Transfer.